Take today. After spending 90 minutes at Job A, I shower, dress and catch a ride cross-town. Coffee with a friend, a few quick errands, and a meeting that has been rescheduled several times. I make it home in time to read a dozen pages, the better part of “Zhuchka,” Chapter 5 of Book Ten of Part IV, then another change of clothes, an email to my sister, and I’m on way to Job B. During a break I sketch some ideas for this post: Bros K—Time Crush—Serial Reading—Literary Darwinism. I jot the first half of this paragraph in long hand on the clean, reverse side of a index card that I’ve been using as a bookmark. Between slugs of cooling coffee I manage to finish “Zhuchka” and begin “At Iyusha’s Bedside.”
Tonight I will be home by ten. If I’m lucky I’ll finish this post and still have time to read another chapter, maybe two, before my mind begins to melt. I’m 25, unwed, no kids, and except for the meeting across town I’ll spend nearly the whole day in my neighborhood. “At Ilyusha’s Beside,” then “Precocity” and on to Book Eleven: Brother Ivan Fyodorovich. Tomorrow I will lock the doors, I will hide my cell phone in a drawer and keep my laptop tucked away, I will set aside as much as three hours because I haven’t heard from Ivan since Book Five and frankly I’ve been worried. My love for the brothers is abiding, deep, consuming. But while I rearrange my schedule I can’t help but wonder: Who has time for this?
My copy of Karamazov (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the super couple who, in the two decades since their Karamazov was released by FSG’s North Point imprint, have translated works by Tolstoy, Gogol, Pasternak and Chekhov) runs to just under 35o,000 words. Moby-Dick is puny by comparison, a mere 220,000 words. Now, the average American adult reads at a rate of 250 words per minute, probably a little less when said adult is reading Dostoevsky. Forget for a moment that the average American adult, hereafter to be known as AAA, will never lay their hands on Karamazov, and while you’re at it please forget that AAA, having graduated high school, will never read another book—any book—barring perhaps the Bible or a Chilton’s automotive manual. No need for excess pessimism. According to my math a dedicated AAA will power through The Brothers Karamazov in a little more than 40 hours. Indulge me while I round that number up to 50, there are, after all, several hundred notes to check, more than a dozen central characters to follow, and any number of outrageous Russian patronymics and pet names to keep straight. Alexei Fyodorovich, for example, is also called Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichik, Lyosha and Lyoshenka. Often a minor character, greeting Alyosha in the street, will find a way to use at least three of Alexei’s nicknames in a single paragraph.
All of which is wonderful, it’s stunning, and Karamazov, more than Anna Karenina, more than Bleak House, manages to be, despite it’s swelling cast of characters, delicate and intimate and clear. But still. Think back to the last time you spent 50 hours focusing on one activity, and not just “one activity” in the sense of a continuous, fluid experience like, say, watching TV, but a single discrete entertainment unit. A 50-hour episode of NYPD, or two days of rapt contemplation at the foot of some monumental piece by Serra. In the time it takes to read The Brothers Karamazov you could drive from Philadelphia to Guatemala at an average speed of 65 miles per hour. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, including all his shorts and A. I., adds up to about 41 hours, which means you could screen Kubrick’s whole oeuvre, splash some water on your face, and still have time to shop for, cook, and eat an eight pound turkey. All this before I’m finished reading Karamazov.
Of course, I’m not suggesting anything about the novel’s quality. In no sense do I think that Karamazov is a waste of time, just the opposite, it is a marvel. But I wonder whether and how the big books of Dickens, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy can compete with other entertainments. For someone like myself, who prefers to read a book from start to finish in as few sittings as possible, the experience of dipping into a Big Book can be jarring, I prefer to be immersed. 30 minutes here, an hour there, my mind will start to wander. A friend suggested to me that the way we read a Big Book, checking in once or twice a day, picking up and sorting out the tangled threads, is more or less equivalent to the way that we connect with our friends and family through the media of Facebook, Twitter, email, texts, etcetera. Embarrassingly, my experience with Karamazov bears this out. Sometimes I feel like I’m waiting for a status update from Dmitri. But unlike a friend’s Facebook stream, the world of Karamazov is, in the most basic sense, dramatic. Shit happens, often terrible shit, the kind of trouble, strife, and sadness that would almost certainly be excised from a web identity. Which is, I think, art’s last and best defense against the joyless, static suck of social media. So, even though I’ve got a lot on my plate I will keep returning to brothers. Eventually I’ll finish Karamazov, and my days will be a little less hectic, and a little less exciting.