Will you welcome please…the Kitman Book Club?
A book nook, as it might have been called in another century, the club encourages the reading of not any new book, the kind that make the current best seller lists, but the classics that people start reading some times and never quite finish. I probably should test people as prerequisite for membership in the club to make sure they haven’t read the whole book. As a TV critic, I remember testing people who claimed they never missed an episode of the PBS classic “Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark” what they thought of the ninth episode, the one with Mrs. Clark in a bikini while the professor discussed the Baths of Caracalla?
If our selections have anything in common it is that they are BIG BOOKS. They also move very slowly.
The first effort along these lines is the all-time champion of the unfinished classics…
War and Peace and Leo Baby and Me
ONE OF the by-products of my years as a TV critic, a profession I began at The New Leader in 1967 and concluded at Newsday 35 years later (1969-2005) was my becoming functionally illiterate. Oh, I could read the listings in TV Guide. But I mean books. Every eight minutes or so with a printed page, my mind wandered. I would need to get up and go to the kitchen, to the bathroom, or out to buy something. My attention span was shot.
The strange aspect of all this is that we are not talking about some dope. We are talking about one of the finest minds in Western civilization—before I became a TV critic. Somehow I had evolved to a higher level of intelligence. I became an audiovisual person, an incredible achievement in such a short time, I told myself. But I didn’t really believe it.
I used to brag in my column that I only read books during the commercials. As evidence, I cited the fact that I had been reading War and Peace since 1969. That was not exactly the truth either. I didn’t even have the usual unread copy in the house.
Instead of suing The New Leader and Newsday—my employers during 37 years of watching TV—for loss of a mind and other faculties under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, I decided to embark on a self improvement project. The first step was learning how to read again. My early plan: Read every book in my local library. But not even Colonel Steve Austin, the Bionic Man, could do that. You need an area of specialization.
I picked Russian literature. Not all of it, only mid- to late-19th-century authors. Not all of them either, only Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, or as I now spell it, Tolstoi. He is called Leo in my house, or as I came to think of him, Leo Baby.
Number one on my reading list was the aforementioned War and Peace. In my desire to make an honest man of myself, I found the book was still available in the single volume Penguin Classics edition of 1982, all 1,444 pages, not including 25 pages occupied by the Introduction, Translator’s Notes, and scorecard of key players compiled by the translator herself, Rosemary Edmonds. Her qualifications included studying Russian, French, Italian, and Old Church Slavonic at universities in England, France and Italy.
It is not as if I didn’t know anything about War and Peace. I knew all about Boris and Natasha from Bullwinkle, a formative influence in my early years. In addition, I still remembered the episode of Cheers where Sam Malone, trying to show Diane he was not as stupid as he seemed, attempted to read all of War and Peace in a single night. He staggered around the Cheers bar the next day, his head filled with the names of dead Russians. It was the greatest comedic moment in Ted Danson’s career.
And who could fail to recall the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry tells Elaine that War and Peace was originally titled War, What Is It Good For? Elaine, taking this as gospel, tells it to a Russian writer, who then throws her organizer out the limo window.
But you can’t just jump into the deep end of the pool if you’re not sure you can swim. So I decided to start small with a shorter work by the same author, the 2001 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Anna Karenina. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize. It is a mere 838 pages, including the Notes, but not counting another 20 pages consisting of the Introduction, Translators’ Note, Further Reading, and List of Principal Characters.
READING A BOOK, I discovered, is something you do not forget how to do—like riding a bike, falling off a log, or turning on a TV set. What a concept, as they used to say in my old profession. I found myself marveling at how long reading has been going on. It is a remarkable experience: exhilarating, involving, consuming. There are no commercial interruptions every few pages, no phony PBS corporate underwriters doing me a service, no Ken Burns telling me his latest never-ending series of stories defines America, whether the subject was the Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Lewis & Clark, or Thomas Jefferson.
Before I go on, I should explain that I had a second reason for choosing to read Anna Karenina first. One of my hobbies, you will notice from my listing in Who’s Who in America, is riding trains. I am probably the only person in northern New Jersey, if not the entire Northeast Corridor, who in the winter of 2006 was reading Anna Karenina to study Tolstoi’s take on the trains of Tsarist Russia.
It is widely known that Anna K. had that unfortunate incident in her life when she threw herself under the wheels of the St. Petersburg-Moscow express, the famed Red Arrow. Tolstoi describes the actual event with the same attention to detail I was to encounter in all his work. Everybody assumes the incident took place in either Moscow’s Leningradsky Station in or St. Petersburg’s Moskovsky Station. Not so, says Professor Stephen F. Cohen of New York University’s Russian and Slavic Studies Department. In Tolstoi’s mind the decapitation occurred as the train was pulling out of the Nizhni Novgorod Station, the stop near the Count’s family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in the Tula guberniya of Central Russia.
But few know how Russia’s premier railroad was built. That’s my area of expertise.
Back in my early career as a speculator, following Charles H. Dow’s theory ofhow to get rich (“buy low and sell high”), I shrewdly bought worthless Tsarist railroad bonds against the day when capitalism would triumph over Communism, and the government’s obligations would finally be honored. For each section of the main line (ultimately the Trans-Siberian Railway), the Tsar’s finance minister would float a new bond issue. I became a major bondholder in the startup company that built the St. Petersburg-Moscow connection.
There were many conflicting plans for the line’s route. As construction company barons, engineers and surveyors crowded Tsar Nicholas’ office in 1851, His Supreme Eminence became restless. Sweeping all the maps off the Imperial Desk, His Excellency told Count Goforonsky, keeper of the royal maps, to bring a fresh map and a ruler. He then drew a straight line on the new map from St. Petersburg to Moscow. “There’s your route,” the Tsar said. As a result, the 404- mile St. Petersburg to Moscow line is one of the straightest in the world. It was very expensive to go straight ahead, but the Tsar didn’t care. Bondholders, like my shrewd investor ancestors, would be paying.
My primary focus was Tolstoi’s predigital camera descriptions of the road, the ballast, the rolling stock, the windows, smoking and dining car facilities, samovars, and other amenities of interest to bondholders.
Nevertheless, I got off to a rocky start with Anna Karenina. During a conversation one weekend in the Berkshires, I quoted Tolstoi’s famous opening sentence: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My hostess, a retired Queens College anthropology professor, shouted: “Wrong! Wrong! Unhappy families are reduced to a basic level of psychic connections and are in the end all alike. Happy families are all wacky in their own way.” It didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t reading Karenina as a social workers’ handbook.
More important was my learning that the wheels of the second carriage did in Anna K. I found 27 other pages where Leo, as I began to think of him the more I read, dealt with the passenger flow, number of seats in the compartments, catering, helpfulness of porters, and other favorable conditions on my railroad. Anna K. met Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (a.k.a. Alyosha) and Countess Vronsky, Alyosha’s mom, on my trains. All the best people, happy and unhappy alike, rode the Red Arrow line.
But a strange thing began to happen. I gradually shunted my train studies onto a siding and became deeply involved in the triangular relationship of Anna, her husband (Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin) and her lover (Alyosha the Count). I was hopelessly caught up in a great soap opera, caring about happy and unhappy families alike.
THREE MONTHS LATER I was able to start fulfilling my lifelong ambition to read War and Peace. Never mind that besides being reading challenged, I am a slow reader.
As a young person, in the Evelyn Wood high-tech period of literacy, I was ashamed of not being a fast reader. After taking speed-reading courses and doing eye exercises to no avail, I began to realize I had a natural tendency toward slowness. It was a genetic thing. As early as the 17th century, when Bialystok was still part of Russia, Kitmans were slow readers. Though my mother’s side was from Vilna, the Boston of the Baltic, where even the waiters read books, the Kaufmans did not read at all. It was a political statement, I was told.
In time, I learned I wasn’t the only slow reader. A surprising number of famous people, upon hearing of my so-called disability, confessed they were also slow readers. That prompted me to form a support group called the Society for Slo Readers of America (SSRA), a kind of slow readers anonymous. Its goal is to bring others out of the closet. (Our slogan: “No slo reader left behind.”) There are no slow readers, the SSRA argues. We just think while we read. We are the people authors write books for.
The society does such things as blame political ills on fast readers. The country never would have gotten involved in Vietnam, for example, if President John F. Kennedy, a fast reader, did not miss the import of the pages in his briefings about the French at Dienbienphu.
But I digress, like Tolstoi. War and Peace changed my life. Initially, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I was reading this great new book. The first person I mentioned it to at a cocktail party, an academic, whistled and said, “No shit.” He was really impressed. But others would shy away from me. I soon realized the fastest way to end a conversation was simply to mention my reading War and Peace. I guess people were afraid I might ask what they thought of Count Bezuhov, or Piotr Kirillovich, or Pierre, or all three of them, since they are the same person. Most of the key characters in War and Peace have at least three names: patronymics, detailing family lineages, plus a nickname. It was amazing how Leo could keep track of them without a computer flow chart.
The reaction to my personal improvement project was fine with me. Every night around nine or 10, while others were watching the exciting new TV shows, I would curl up in bed with my Penguin edition and my Lindt & Sprüngli milk chocolate and learn more than I ever dreamed possible about Count Ilya Rostov, Prince Vasili Kuragin, Prince Nikolai Andreyevich Bolkonsky, and their happy and unhappy families.
You need strong wrists to hold up a book of this size, I found. It was too heavy for me while lying in the prone position. Tolstoi wrists are the literary equivalent of tennis elbow.
I got to page 26 before I lost my way in the plot. Leo can be sneaky, dropping in characters—580 of them, according to one Wikipedia count—without introduction. It gave me the feeling he had lost a page or two out of the window in the buggy on his way to Nizhni Novgorod station.
WHAT I had known of War and Peace came from Woody Allen’s synopsis in the New Yorker, “It’s a book about Russia.” But there is more to it than that. Leo’s account of the personal entanglements of five aristocratic families with the history of 1805-13, and his profound psychological observations, recorded in a six-year period (1863-69), is an awesome achievement. Yet it is a schizoid reading experience.
I couldn’t wait to get to the “War” chapters about another of Tsar Alexander’s noble legions being cut to pieces by Napoleon’s military machine. Tolstoi’s description of Pierre bumbling his way into the Battle of Borodino as an embedded correspondent with a Russian artillery crew is a brilliant piece of journalism. I felt I was an eyewitness to the slaughter of 100,000 French and Russian troops for no apparent strategic reason.
I loved Tolstoi’s debunking of Napoleon’s genius in battles often won by luck or chance, and the blunder of choosing the wrong road back from Moscow, through Smolensk, which took him over the previously scorched earth on the way into town. I enjoyed reading about the stupidity of the Russian general staff, the nine egomaniacal field marshals who fought each other more effectively than the French in the smoke-filled back rooms of the palace. Tsar Alexander ignored them all, choosing instead a general (Kutuzov) who let the French knot their own noose. No wonder Alexander I was hailed as a supertsar. And I howled at Leo’s withering sarcasm in dealing with his other favorite targets, the French and Russian historians, who got it all wrong from Austerlitz to Borodino.
On the other hand, the many “Peace” chapters reminded me of watching a Chekhov play. An hour with Uncle Vanya, as it has been said, is like a month in the country. Nonetheless, I could relate to Tolstoi’s accounts of the lifestyles of the rich and infamous, even though my great grandfather and his grandfather were serfs.
I would need a book to tell you all the fascinating things, and dark secrets, I stumbled upon as a dedicated SSRA founder. For instance, I discovered what the Freemasons do in their temples—a secret more closely guarded to this day than the recipe for making atom bombs. My own father refused to tell me the details of the Masons’ induction rites.
So approaching the end—as I thought of the last 250 pages—I began to get depressed. No longer would I come down to breakfast worried about the Tsar prematurely disbanding the Semeonovsk regiment, or about the fate of Arakcheyev or the Bible Society.
My conversation, having similarly become based on what page I was up to, was also affected. One week everything that happened in Iraq reminded me of Napoleon’s long goodbye from Moscow. Out of the clear blue, I would say—echoing some historians—if only Napoleon didn’t have a head cold at Borodino that damaged his judgment, we children of the Russian Diaspora might well be French.
Will these people fade out of my life, like good friends who move away and vow to stay in touch? If only there was a Russian who could carry on Leo’s work— somebody who, as in the case of Robert Ludlum, would be writing under an exhumed name.
ON OCTOBER 1, 2007, at 10:47 P.M. (New Jersey Standard Time), I finished reading War and Peace—only five months, three weeks, four days, and three hours after I started the book. I exaggerate a little. In truth, I stopped slow reading on page 1,402, and skimmed the last 42 pages. And I make no apology.
Those last pages were what Leo titled the “Epilogue.” Why anyone should need an epilogue after doing four books— “Book One,” “Book Two,” etc.—is a mystery, unless the supposition is that Leo was looking for a place to park his theories about the philosophy of history. I would have given him a parking ticket. (Actually, the original had two epilogues; one was deleted from Edmonds’ translation.)
As I tried to read the Epilogue I found myself saying, “Enough already, Lev Nikolaevich.” Nevertheless, I recommended War and Peace as the next selection for the SSRA’s Book of the Month or Year or However Long It Takes Club, with the one cavil about the Epilogue.
WHILE DOING a victory turn, celebrating completion of the first part of my Five-Year Reading Plan, and carefully weighing my options in choosing my next book, a major commitment, I received an e-mail from the SSRA’s Board of Trustees.
“Congratulations! You are now a former member of the Society of Slo Readers of America Board of Trustees. We met in secret and voted to remove you. You are a disgrace to slow readers everywhere. It would take a real slow reader years to cover the ground you whizzed by. The fact that you spent a lot of time with the book in front of you, and would have made less progress if more of that time you were awake, is a lame excuse.”
I better stop here. This essay is already long enough in length, if not psychological insights, understanding of humanity, telling it like it is, and whatever else Tolstoi had going for him. Some of you may even be reading it for several days. Still, it could be seen as the War and Peace of literary criticism. My Leo Baby would have been proud.