I’ll never forget October 4th, 2008. It was the day I made one of the most shortsighted decision in a lifetime filled with shortsighted decisions.
Back in the days before AllThingsThatAreGood, you remember those days right? The eventual creators of this website got together for the first and as it turns out, the last Kincade. The Kincade was a day we invented that involved a round of golf, concert, and a signature cocktail in the same day. At the end of the Kincade I came away with the following:
- I’m not that good at golf
- Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears are good at their instruments
- Moscow Mules are delicious
- I unknowingly accepted a challenge
Taking our shoes off after golf, I was told the most recent of many stories of a friend of ours who was probably 33 or 34 at the time and a fixture in the Atlanta Cocktail Circuit. The self proclaimed “Genghis Khan of 5 Paces” used to regale us with tales of the ladies he met; the ridiculousness that ensued, and then next group of ladies he would inevitably meet afterwards. Well, today’s story from our resident Lothario went something like this…
“Yeah, I was at so and so’s last week for this cocktail thing and I’m sitting there listening to this conversation and Fuck Me! The people who have read Anna Karenina love to talk about reading Anna Karenina. Every party I’m at Anna Karenina inevitably comes up, and it’s almost like you need to have read it just to qualify for those conversations. I need to read that pile of shit just so I can have a new way into conversations to lay the ground work to chase some well read tail…”
Well, after hearing this and consuming four to five Moscow Mules I made a rather bold decision that if having read one Russian novel was all that it took to meet girls and be entertaining in social settings, then I was going to be our generations Wilt Chamberlain. If people were entertained by being well read, I was going to be extremely well read. However, one book seemed way too easy. Give me a real challenge I thought, any chimpanzee read one book. Give me the three longest, most arduous titles that people have heard of, and I can knock those out. So it was decided. I would read Anna Karenina, Infinite Jest, and Atlas Shrugged. Turns out it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. This is shown by the fact that it took me almost six months to remember the challenge and actually buy the books.
First on my list was Anna Karenina. I read 15 pages and promptly put it down to read the 14 other books from my library queue instead. So, as you can see it really grabbed a hold of me. I decided that it would be best if I worked my way up to Tolstoy, so I started with Atlas Shrugged. At the time I was just starting business school and greed and capitalism were the names of the game, so Ayn Rand was a good fit for the time. Turns out it was rather enjoyable and is a real shame it has become the manifesto of the radical right in our country.
So, now I’m a third of the way through my challenge, it’s January 2011 and having just finished grad school, I am up for the next leg of my challenge. Again, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to really dig into some Tolstoy. Besides pounding the pavement looking for a job, I spent inordinate amounts of time in coffee shops around Atlanta plus I had a record player at home. Unless Christopher Hitchens came and read this book to me while Natalie Portman made me hot chocolate in a thermal onesie, nothing could provide a more ideal environment to tackle this big Russian beast. Well, I made it to page 115 this time and had to put it down again. Everyone knows a good trilogy needs a big finish and I figured, if this were Star Wars, Anna Karenina should be my Return of the Jedi.
So, I moved on to Infinite Jest. In the eight weeks that it took me to read Infinite Jest, the only other reading I did was the New Yorker, the daily crossword in USA Today,the extremely under rated Half Empty by David Rakoff, and the cooking instructions for Quaker Oats Original Slow Cook Oats. Without giving away too much, I was completely enthralled with one of the main story lines in Infinite Jest, the other story line wasn’t as enthralling and it turned into a race to see how fast I could get back to the exciting one. I also abused the binding of Infinite Jest in a way I never thought possible in a book by flipping back and forth to read the 338 end notes that are numbered and scattered throughout the book.
Upon completing part two of my challenge, I was thinking maybe I was done with the whole thing. Big books were a bear and to be honest I really hadn’t benefited from any of the social benefits that I thought cam inevitably from reading such heady novels. In fact, all that I could really say I had accomplished was a debilitating addiction to caffeine and becoming a borderline shut-in. I needed a sign, something to let me know I was doing the right thing. Little did I know it would come so quickly and blatantly.
When the Decemberists released the “King is Dead” the creators of ATTAG were all instant fans of it (You can take a look at the 2011 Best Of Lists just for confirmation of how big of fans we were). It was here they sing, “On the road, It’s well advised that you follow your own bag / In the year of the chewable Ambien tab”. There it was, right in front of me, a direct reference that never would have been picked up without my big book challenge! Then to hammer it home they created a video! Seen here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJpfK7l404I) this is essentially a love letter to one of the most beloved scenes in the book. That’s all I needed – I was back!
So motivated by my little victory, I jumped right back into it. Deciding I needed a fresh start with Anna Karenina, I started over. It didn’t work. I probably made it to page 50 and between work, more interesting books that were less than 800 pages, and a burgeoning social life, I moved on and spent the majority of 2011 avoiding it at all costs. I was in New York in November 2011 and got word that they were turning Anna Karenina into a movie and Kiera Knightley and Jude Law were going to be in it, meaning it as going to be a big hit and all the cocktail parties for the next several years were going to overtaken by some schmuck taking the easy way out and watching the movie and reading a Wikipedia synopsis. I was not going to stand for this! I was slowly rebuilding my Anna Karenina courage…
In May, I finally got enough courage to sit down and start in a new direction. E-reading was going to be the answer. Slowly, bit by bit I picked away at this monster. All I could think of was a breakfast in mid-2010 when I was told that it doesn’t really count as reading Anna Karenina until you get to page 250. Well, I was sick of unsuccessfully trying to read this book. I eventually got past 250, 500 and finally the entire book. There was a lot of going backwards and I had to make several small note cards to remind myself who each character was, but I did it. Finally, four years later.
I have been asked about all three of these books and if they were worth it. My thoughts are that all three of them were very good. Maybe a little long winded at times, but those were the times. Having done this, I am glad that I have read all three of them and they have probably stretched me a lot more then the Hunger Games trilogy did.
In total, I read the first 50 pages of Anna Karenina approximately four times. I read over eighty other books from the time I first opened Anna Karenina until the day I finished it. I ended up purchasing three different versions of Anna Karenina (small print, larger print, and an E-Reading version). I got a new degree in the time it took me to read this book. It was more than a battle, it was a war. However, for now and the rest of my days I will be able to say that I too have conquered this monster. So, while you are at your holiday cocktail parties trolling for ladies or bacon wrapped snacks, just look for the snooty conversation going on in the corner about fine literature and the destruction of our society, that is where you’ll find me…