My Favorite Book
I referred to the Time list of the best books ever written some weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about it since, and the list has probably destroyed my interest in ‘best of’ lists for ever after. Which may prove to be a good thing. But what it did raise to my attention was the ludicrous inclusion of The Great Gatsby – I mean, give me a break. I’m not saying Fitzgerald isn’t good, but Dosteyevsky has done turds that dwarf Gatsby.
My own contentions where this is concerned have led me to one specific conclusion; novels are about the human condition, and the novels which speak to you the loudest will reflect a large slice of your own. In order to level the playing field and make it as inclusive a sport as possible, you have to eliminate the thematic appeal and reduce the book to matters of technique and structure. This discussion is already becoming hideously J. Evans Pritchard, so I’ll move on.
If I had to produce my own list, I’d probably have the same book lodged at number one as Time; Anna Karenina. A woman I was seeing some years ago said, ‘That’s a study book, isn’t it?’ After passing into a dead faint, I peeled myself off the floor and marched her into the closest bookstore to purchase a copy. I then set about reading it to her at night. I really loved Anna Karenina. I read large tracts of it sitting in an infra-red sauna, which I was using to try and speed up the healing of my wrists which were mangled from training. I sweated all over the damn thing and even cried on it when I got to the end.
Tolstoy’s technique is supernatural. To try and put it simply, the thing that is so dazzling is that Tolstoy is a master psychiatrist. He understands why people do what they do and has the ability to take you into what is an essentially omniscient understanding of them. This is magnified on an enormous scale; he takes you right to the quick of one person and then another, and then builds the enormous scaffold of the story around them.
When you read Anna Karenina, it is like being a child sitting in a darkened planetarium, watching the celestial bodies turning around him while he is seated at the center. This is the novel’s great trick; it effectively places you to at the nexus of the action so you can watch the incredible sweep of late-19th century Russia turning about you. The co-ordination and rhythm of the novel reveals the great mystery at the root of society; they constitute the invisible forces that position us in relation to each other, as surely as planets turn in their separate orbits and then in a co-ordinated formation around the sun.
I honestly believe that immersing yourself in Anna Karenina can make you a better person, because it teaches the profound gift of empathy. (I had this experience with one other novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the greatness stakes, I think Anna just pips it at the post).