Reader Challenge: Tackle your First Giant Russian Novel

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Shara Lee

Staff Writer

Shara Lee is a lifelong reader whose tastes lie somewhere in between literary fiction and fantasy. How could she choose between brooding protagonists who contemplate the meaning of life and dragons? She works as a higher ed marketer, and on rainy days (which is quite often in the Pacific Northwest where she resides) spends lunch hours reading Sylvia Plath on the floor of the university library and taking in that sweet "old book smell". Her lifelong struggle is to get her husband to pick up any book that isn't authored by a comedian. She lives in a tiny Vancouver, BC suburb. Twitter: @shara_lee

Confession: I avoided reading any giant Russian novels for the entirety of my undergraduate degree. The truth is, I was intimidated by the length of these novels and of books in translation altogether, preferring to study popular American classics instead.

Flash forward several years: I committed to tackling my first giant Russian novel. To my surprise, I finished Anna Karenina with relative ease and came out of the experience a little more cultured and a whole lot hungrier for Slavic lit.

Yes, giant Russian novels are more challenging than your average modern best-seller. They require a significant investment of time and focus, but what you get in return is a reading experience rich in character, description, and detail. You get a historical primer along with an enjoyable reading experience.

For example, Leo Tolstoy’s character Levin brings up several political arguments from the 19th century during Russia’s transition from its centuries-long feudal system. But Levin also serves as a romantic lead, wooing the high-society Kitty while the reader remains privy to his romantic thoughts. You’ve probably seen this classic quote floating around the bookternet, “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” Come on, who doesn’t love a little romance?

So here are my tips for tackling your first (hopefully not last) giant Russian novel:

1. Choose a good translation

I chose a recent translation and this undoubtedly aided in my understanding of the text. If you have to wrestle with unfamiliar words because of an outdated translation, you’re not going to enjoy the experience.

2. Dog-ear the character list

Russian names, can be a challenge and to really get into the story, you need to know who everyone is. Pro tip: Princess is a prefix referring to young women from aristocratic families– they are not royalty.

3. Set a deadline

I gave myself a month to get through Anna Karenina. I then calculated how many pages I needed to read each day to make this deadline. Even though some days I read less, I could usually catch up the day after.

4. Get a physical copy

Don’t listen to the whole thing on audio. There are passages that you’ll probably want to re-read and underline so it’s important to have a paper copy of the book. Plus, it’ll feel good to move that bookmark closer and closer to the end.

5. Download the audio version

That being said, it’s a good idea to download the audio version. Since Russian novels are long, you’ll save some time if you listen while folding laundry.

6. Set a reward

Give yourself something to look forward to. I told myself that when I finished reading the novel I would watch the movie. The movie (in my opinion) turned out to be a bit of a bust, but the anticipation of watching it kept me going.

While these are tips for conquering giant Russian novels, you most certainly don’t have to dive into Russian lit with a monolithic book. There are so many places to start from novellas like Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych to modern classics like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. You’ll even find double hitters like the Nobel Prize-winning banned book Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. So go ahead, indulge your inner Slav.