Do you remember how certain books found their way into your consciousness? Many probably came from school assignments and summer reading lists. Others from relatives who knew you liked to read and sent whatever books they came across your way. Perhaps a bookish relative or friend swore this would change your life as they thrust a book in your hands. Sometimes, but not always, they were right. Other books you chased down while on your own personal treasure hunt for better and better stories. Sometimes you weren’t even looking for a story and you just stumbled upon one. It didn’t even occur you to look for a book there, but there it was anyway. That was how I found my way to Russian literature. I wasn’t even looking; just watching cartoons and all of a sudden, there was Leo Tolstoy.
A few weeks ago, Charlie Brown cartoons randomly started playing on cable. Watching them reminded me of one of my favorites, “Happy New Year, Charlie Brown!” In the New Year’s themed special everyone is thinking about the upcoming New Year’s Eve party. Charlie Brown hopes to find the courage to talk to the Little Red-Haired Girl. He dreams of dancing with her. In between daydreams about his crush, Charlie Brown struggles to finish Tolstoy’s War and Peace. His incomprehensible teacher has tasked him with writing a book report on the book (over winter break, no less).
As a kid I was always looking for new books to read. Not just any new books, but books that showed me something new about the world or even a different one. Whether it was because I read so much or because I grew up in a mid-size city that sometimes felt like a small town, I always knew there was a world beyond and possibly far different from the town I lived in. I wanted to travel the world and began planning my adventures to Paris and Morocco when I was in middle school. Being too young to actually explore the planet on my own, books were my sole means of global transportation.
Watching Charlie Brown read War and Peace was a revelation. Until that point I had never heard of Tolstoy, his epic work about Napoleonic wars and the invasion of Russia, or anything about Russian literature. Nor did I know all that much about Russia (or was it the USSR?) beyond that it was communist and at odds with the U.S. Still, Charlie Brown was reading it, so I had to give it a try.
Obviously, assigning a child a book like War and Peace to read is absurd; unfortunately, I did not realize that upon initially viewing the cartoon. Charlie Brown struggled to finish the book, but then he had trouble with kites so his struggle didn’t deter me. I could fly a kite and I was a good reader, so surely I could read War and Peace.
I was shocked when I saw the actual book. At over a thousand pages, elementary school me felt more than a little overwhelmed. I decided maybe the book wasn’t for me after all. But still I was intrigued. Charlie Brown had planted a seed that would take many years to sprout, but would eventually bloom into a love of Russian literature.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment came first. I read it once for school and then a second time just for me. Once I managed to get through one of the Russians, the others lost a little of their intimidation factor. All except War and Peace– that remained off-limits. Anna Karenina came next, followed by Dead Souls, The Brothers Karamazov, The House of the Dead, and Poor Folk.
It would be more than two decades before I made my way back to War and Peace. Things that seem huge and impossible as a kid sometimes stay that way until confronted as an adult and seen in relation to one’s then taller and broader perspective. The hefty tome loomed large in my memory for years, even as I began reading other Russian novels. Eventually I did make my way back to War and Peace. I can’t lie; there were times when it was a struggle to get through. I understood why Charlie Brown tried to find an audio or computer game version of the book and occasionally fell asleep while reading. But I made it through.
Perhaps I would have found my way to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other Russian writers even if I hadn’t seen the Charlie Brown New Year’s special, but the cartoon definitely put me on a path. I didn’t grow up surrounded by people who read that much. When they did, read they tended not to read classics, however such term may be defined, and most definitely not classic Russian literature. The cartoon opened up a possibility I hadn’t known existed before Charlie Brown showed it to me. Further, notwithstanding my initial shock, it eventually helped make me into a reader who doesn’t shy away from books that are big and difficult. For that reason, I would like to say thank you Charlie Brown, for introducing me to Russian literature. You helped make my world a lot bigger.