That train is looking pretty grimy, 5/15/21

I started reading Anna Karenina out of sheer pique. After my reading marathon in March, I spent a month earnestly beginning the books on my shelf and then throwing them aside like a fretful child. Why were all of these books so mediocre? Why hadn't I reached any insights about my own interests? Was I interested in anything at all? I spent an hour one morning leafing through an intellectual, coolly written collection of essays and felt such a reluctance to keep going that I got up, snatched Anna Karenina off the shelf, and read the first section (118 pages) in one go. 

I was prepared for something dense and confusing—it is an 822-page Russian novel in which every character has at minimum three names—but Anna Karenina almost reads like a guilty pleasure. Adultery crops up right off the bat: that famous first line about unhappy families is followed by a description of a household in the process of falling apart because the wife has just discovered that her husband has been cheating on her with the governess. Wealthy Russian aristocrats (including a startling number of princesses) are constantly going to balls, or to the theater, or to each other's houses, and some moments are even hashtag relatable: “The conversation began amiably, but precisely because it was a bit too amiable, it came to a halt again. They had to resort to the tried-and-trusted remedy—malicious gossip." Who wouldn't read on?

The novel follows two main couples. Anna Karenina—charismatic, beautiful and married—succumbs to an affair with Count Vronsky, some military dude with very few perceptible redeeming qualities. Then there's Levin, an eccentric aristocrat who lives in the countryside and is working on what he hopes will be a groundbreaking tome about Russian agricultural practices (pun intended). Levin is madly in love with a young noblewoman named Kitty, who starts out the book hoping Vronsky will propose to her. Luckily for Kitty, that doesn't happen. She and Levin eventually get married, and their relationship is far happier than Anna and Vronsky's, who spend most of the book failing to communicate, disagreeing over whether Anna should get divorced from her husband, and being bored in Europe. Eventually they return to Russia, where Anna causes a scandal just by showing up to a concert and later has an icy conversation with Vronsky that ends with her saying, " will regret this.” (Did I mention that the epigraph to the novel is "Vengeance is mine; I will repay"???) After that, there's a very striking stream-of-consciousness section where Anna distractedly rides around the city in a carriage for 16 doom-laden pages and ends up, famously, under a freight train.

It took me two weeks to finish Anna Karenina, and then I didn't quite know what to do with myself. I couldn't read—at least not right away. Instead, I wandered aimlessly around my apartment. I reorganized the closet, arranged the kitchen appliances into a more user-friendly configuration, and decided to make it my mission to finally clean the shower doors encrusted with soap scum. And then, mid-week, just as I had begun to wonder if I would accomplish anything ever again, I was persuaded to Scav.

Scav is short for "the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt," and it’s one of those weird college traditions that should not be a part of my identity but is—a core, irredeemably silly part of me that rarely sees the light of day now that more people than ever are convinced that I’m an adult. (To be fair, I have done Scav for 25% of the years I’ve been alive.) During Scav every May, hundreds of hell-bent students and alumni attempt to make/complete/perform as many zany items on a list as possible. I did not plan to Scav this year, mostly because deciding to Scav is like deciding to enter a fugue state for exactly four days. Nevertheless, Friday night saw me placing exactly 3,080 tiny plastic beads on a pegboard for nine hours straight to reproduce an image of a character from the movie adaptation of The Lorax because a very vocal minority of people on Tumblr were obsessed with him in 2012 (see item 20).

But my true come-to-Jesus moment occurred while I was knitting a map of the Isle of Wight. Specifically, I was Fair Isle knitting the map, a technique that switches between multiple colors, "such that the major outcrops and formations are represented by different pattern schemes. Your geological map should be to scale and have a key, lest ye be thrown to the DoGS (Department of Geophysical Sciences)." I started knitting sometime Saturday evening, feeling cocky. By 2 am my left hand had begun its transformation into a gnarled claw and my fingertips hurt and I kept losing my thread in the thicket of 10 strands of different colored yarn all tangled together like some goddamn Gordian knot and I had no idea which of the 53 rows in this pattern I made I was supposed to be on or what stitch I was on or what color it was supposed to be, and I wanted to scream. From there I progressed into a period of active self-loathing in which I rehearsed, in great detail, every humiliation, resentment and grudge I've been holding on to since college. (It turns out there are a lot.)

Eventually I accepted the fact that I would indeed be staying up until 6 am, and a feeling I can only describe as total Zen washed over me. There was simply nothing to be done about my circumstances; I felt serene, possibly even enlightened. My mind was blissfully blank as I knitted my final rows and clumsily embroidered the names of the Isle of Wight's geological formations onto my rumpled creation. I was one with needle and thread. I was unbound by earthly attachments and bodily needs. I was 99.8 degrees Fahrenheit, because I had gotten my second vaccine dose seventeen hours prior.  

There's this moment in Anna Karenina when Levin decides to scythe his meadows alongside the Russian peasants he has a love/hate relationship with. It's backbreaking work, he can barely keep up, and his rows are "haphazard and uneven." But as Levin gets into the flow, he becomes blissfully happy. "They did row after row. They did long rows and short rows, and rows with good and bad grass. Levin lost all awareness of time and had absolutely no idea whether it was late or early. ... There were moments in the middle of his work when he forgot what he was doing and it became easy, and in those moments his row came out almost as evenly and as well as Titus's. But as soon as he remembered what he was doing, and began trying to do it better, he immediately felt the full difficulty of the work, and his row came out badly.”

Throughout the book, in fact, I kept noticing references to "oblivion," this idea of forgetting yourself and entering into a kind of flow state. It's a weird thing to advocate for, oblivion. And yet, at the end of the book, Levin is nearly driven to suicide because he's reading all these philosophers—Spinoza, Plato, Hegel, Schopenhauer, etc.—and still can't figure out what the point of being alive is. Eventually he arrives at an epiphany: that attempting to reason your way to the meaning of life, as philosophers do, is an impossible task, that it might even be "intellectual dishonesty." Because everyone already instinctively knows the meaning of life, even the lowliest peasant, and all you have to do is not think so hard about it and just live according to the spiritual truths that we all inherently know. (The meaning of life, FYI, is "to live for God, for one's soul.")

I have to admit that I struggled with this ending—partly because I am not religious, but mostly because it is very difficult to get me to stop thinking. And yet I might be pulling a pre-epiphany Levin here, trying so hard to find myself in all those mediocre books. Maybe the answers aren't in books. Maybe I need to not try so hard—to simply go stitch by stitch, scythe swing by scythe swing, bead by bead, and eventually arrive at something that looks like life itself



Shameless self-promotion/sponsored content/advertising section
It turns out that I have lots of thoughts about reading, and I wrote about them in this long and very silly essay in which I narrate my experience taking a self-help course that promises to teach me how to "read better"! 

📚 FREE BOOKS: The spreadsheet is back! I added a bunch of new books, so request away: 📚