Some more brief book thoughts

It’s Friday and it’s good for that. I might make this a regular thing, though I prefer to talk about books in more detail when I can. We’ll see! Anyway:

  • Having read a history of the Crimean War some time back, I recalled that some of the accounts quoted in the book had come from the work of Leo Tolstoy, who as a young man had seen some military service in said conflict. Thus, when I noticed that a Penguin edition of The Sebastopol Sketches, three short pieces that had the effect of breaking Tolstoy to a Russian audience as they were published during and just after the War, had been checked back into the library here, I snagged it for a read — among other things because I noticed that the whole book was indeed pretty slim, which was nice given the ponderous editions of his novels that are out there.

    Most of my Tolstoyan reading, probably unsurprisingly, took place in college; at UCLA I had the good fortune of taking several courses in Russian literature, including at least two by Michael Heim, a passionate scholar and a fine instructor who I have to credit for some of the best learning I got during my years there (and yes, he had that fantastic beard even then — it only seemed appropriate for a guy teaching Russian literature of that era to have one!). I don’t believe I ever took a course specifically on Tolstoy, but the centerpiece of one course was War and Peace, along with a variety of other 19th century Russian efforts, including Ivan Turgenev‘s ‘superfluous man’ story Rudin and Nikolai Gogol‘s breathtakingly funny and savage satire Dead Souls, one of the masterpieces of the form and something which anyone with the sense of how surreal the machinating human animal can make things should read posthaste.

    I enjoyed War and Peace though like many readers found the essays that started to punctuate the book towards the end more than a little frustrating. Reading The Sebastopol Sketches made me realize something I had forgotten, however — Tolstoy’s grasp of dialogue and interaction between others, a sense of dynamics within an extremely formal environment. This comes to the fore most in the second sketch, the least weighty of the three, which has the feeling of a comedy of manners between any number of vain, nervous, parading and self-doubting army officers, some noble, some not, as the siege of the city continues. Even the death that one character succumbs to is less sorrowful than might be expected, instead feeling very self-consciously dramatic (David McDuff, the translator and editor, includes a piece of late 19th century critical writing from a Russian author on that death in the notes, a useful supplement). Allowing for the differences in time and translation, it’s still very easy to see how readily Tolstoy was able to find an audience among the Russian literati; even in a time of strict censorship, he allows for imperfect characters to make their mark.

    More can and should be said — in a private discussion, I noted that “the first sketch is one of the earliest modern examples of ‘war reporting’ — it’s not too much to say that it’s the equivalent of a milblog, designed for a patriotic audience, whereas the second and third pieces are more questioning and nuanced in the guise of fiction as opposed to reportage.” For now, and far too briefly, I found it a freshing, saddening and thoughtful read, something that perhaps through distance allows for a greater resonance.

  • On a completely different note, a book that I haven’t read but whose cover caught my eye came back to the library the other day — the second edition of The Internet Business Guide by Rosalind Resnick and Dave Taylor, from 1995. I don’t have anything to praise or criticize about this book, really — it’s just that the back cover has reminded me how swiftly time has passed and how the culture has changed. Among other things, the back cover promises you, the eager reader of that time, the ability to learn these things:

    Send e-mail anywhere in the world for free

    Use the Internet to successfully market your products and services

    Send and receive digital cash

    Set up a home page on the Web

    I can only imagine a high school reader encountering this thing randomly somewhere and going, “The hell?” I know I would be doing just that if it were me.


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