THE BLOG
09/11/2014 12:02 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Light and Shade: Celebrating Tolstoy's 186th

"All the beauty of life is made up of light and shade."

I'm a newspaper book columnist -- was an English major! -- and yet shamefully realized last summer at age 31 that'd I'd never read "Anna Karenina."

Shameful, I knew.

This book was an Oprah pick. This book was being adapted for a Keira Knighley film, Chrissakes.
And so I set out to read it. And I read it. And it blew my mind.

Many books mean something. Few books mean everything.

And Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" falls into the latter category.

I read it for the second time this summer, and yet again, ol' Leo knocked me to my knees with his genius. It's one of those books I could read every summer and pick up new lines, new meaning, each time.

Tolstoy was honored with his own Google screen Tuesday in honor of his 186th birthday -- he was born Sept. 9, 1828 -- and I got to thinking about Anna.

The novel is so much more than a story about the love affair between two Russian aristocrats --it's about an unhappy wife's internal struggle with the guilt of leaving her family for her lover.
It waxes poetic on Nature and weaves deep philosophic conversations about politics, the meaning of life, the faults of organized religion.

It's about Meta topics like Christianity, Truth, War, Peace, Human Nature, Society, Communism, Happiness, Loneliness, the Human Condition.

That Tolstoy was able to pack so much meaning on so many different subjects into a single story is more than brilliant -- it's almost unbelievable.

On top of that, he's able to fully flesh out the dozen main characters into three-dimensional, fully-developed people that we come to know and care for; we see their strengths and weaknesses, every foible, every nuance of their personalities.

We live with these people -- I call them people because they feel to be more than characters -- we care for them; we relate to them; we begin to see them we can almost hear them talk and breathe.
Tolstoy spends only about half the novel on Anna's story -- the other half is devoted to Levin, a farmer struggling to find God and Meaning in his life and considered to serve as the alter ego of Count Lev "Leo" Nikolayevich Tolstoy himself.

When Tolstoy was writing "Anna" in the 1870s, he was also going through an existential crisis and spiritual awakening, exactly like Levin's. He writes about Levin: "The question was summed up for him thus: 'If I do not accept the answers Christianity gives to the problems of my life, what answers do I accept?'"

There is a profound quote for almost any topic; as I read, my pen flew, underlining everywhere.
Even if you haven't read the book, you've almost certainly heard its famous first line: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I'll share here a few of my underlined passages:

"He stepped down, avoiding any long look at her as one avoids long looks at the sun, but seeing her as one sees the sun, without looking." "These joys were so trifling as to be as imperceptible as grains of gold among the sand, and in moments of depression she saw nothing but the sand; yet there were brighter moments when she felt nothing but joy, saw nothing but the gold." "I'm like a starving man who has been given food. Maybe he's cold, and his clothes are torn, and he's ashamed, but he's not unhappy."

And my favorite:

"It all happened at the same time: a little boy ran over to a pigeon, glancing over at Levin with a smile; the pigeon flapped its wings and fluttered, gleaming in the sunshine among the snowdust quivering in the air, while the smell of freshly baked bread was wafted out of a little window as the loaves were put out. All this together was so extraordinarily wonderful that Levin burst out laughing and crying for joy."

A version of this story ran in my BookLovers column.