THE BLOG
02/04/2014 01:44 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2014

On Studying Russian Literature

Currently, I'm in a class called "19th Century Russian Novels in Translation." We've finished Fathers and Children, are currently reading War and Peace, and will read The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment before the semester ends.

I love school, and always have, but this course is undoubtedly the best time I've ever had in a classroom. It's the first "real" literature class I've had since I left high school, but it's also the first time I'm studying something I love -- Russian Literature -- in the classroom. (This makes me wonder why I've chosen my particular program of study, but that's a different essay).

Lots of people around campus ask why I decided to take this class, considering the high volume of assigned reading. I'm in this class because I've loved Russian Literature since I was a sophomore in high school. The assigned reading due every week does nothing, but excite me. I love it.

No one really asks me why I love it, but nonetheless, I have an answer for that question. I love Russian Literature (and all literature, really) because it reminds me that the things I think are unique to myself are actually commonplace, and in so doing, it addresses the exceptional by proving that it is mundane. To experience this in the classroom is the closest thing to a "dream come true" I've known. It has made me think more about what makes good literature, and what makes a good writer. Like all education should, this class is making me a better person through the thoughts it provokes within me.

Some of those thoughts revolve around what makes a book "good." Good literature reveals that what we consider unique feelings are actually common, felt by many other people at different times. Books make us feel less alone. Tolstoy accomplishes this in Volume 1 of War and Peace, many times over. He opens the novel with a party, hosted by a woman called Anna Pavlolvna. She is so obsessed with manners that she flutters between her guests to chaperone their interactions. When a young, brusque man called Pierre joins the party, Anna Pavlovna knows that he will foil her perfectly curated conversations. The reader feels the tension between the hostess' aristocratic manners and Pierre's contempt for formalities. Tolstoy makes clear that the forced interactions suffocate every guest at the party, even though only Pierre acts out. The scenes illuminate for the reader that social anxiety is not unique, but so common that fictional 19th Century Russians felt it in Anna Pavlovna's drawing room.

Studying scenes like this, I've realized that only unexamined monotony is undesirable in literature. Tolstoy makes common, oppressive social interactions extraordinary by proving that everyone feels the pressure to perform at parties. I can relate with a character written in the early 19th Century, because emotion transcends time.

All of these thoughts moved me to consider what makes a good writer. I think that good writers write about being alive. They describe what they considered a unique feeling (often a bad feeling), and find companionship with a number of readers who have felt the exact same way. Yet, they write about the beautiful feelings too, the ones so perfect that it seems impossible someone else has felt them too, because they're equally as common, true, important, and as hard to say as the bad. This combination makes any number of assigned pages of War and Peace not only tolerable, but also enjoyable and important, because I feel less alone, and more human, when I read. It makes me want to be a better student and spend more time studying what I love: being alive.