Illustrated by Rosalind Helfand
On the subway, during early morning rush hour, I raise my head from my “bible,” where I have underlined in red an unfamiliar word that I need to look up in my pocket dictionary, and notice sitting across from me a man, bent over a fat leather-bound book on his lap, his left index finger on a page, his right hand writing on a loose sheet covering the opposite page. The leather cover looks old and soft and stretched and the pages appear swollen.
There are dozens of slips of paper stuck into the book, their white and yellow edges protruding. His book, I’m guessing, is an actual Bible. But those slips? Are they notes to himself? Reference markers? Receipts? I enjoy discovering bus transfers and train tickets left behind in my old books. (Ah!, I say to myself, now I know when I last read Sons and Lovers! And, after a moment’s puzzlement, I remember why I had gone out to Mineola in January or why I was in San Francisco on that fall day.) That man across from me has made a book his very own—not the Bible but his bible.
Don’t worry, reader! I’m not about to advocate against the damned Kindle. (I know there are clever features on electronic readers for taking notes.) Instead, I want to figure out why I find it so touching to see on public transportation this man and others taking comfort and joy in their literal or literary bibles.
To see a man with an opened volume reciting under his breath, to observe a woman lost in thought as she nods her head in agreement with something she has just read—I certainly feel a sympathetic intimacy. I identify with anyone involved in the private act of reading his or her bible in a close-quartered public space. To live in those books, to identify themselves by their books, I admire them (and myself, yes). That they’re bibles of one kind or another—the books of life!—not idle books, not schoolbooks, not comic books or thrillers, not to satisfy someone else or to distract us from thinking—but absolutely for thinking and moral reflection.
I love seeing that on the subway. Those bibles are the books of our lives, and there those books are out in the open. When I’m reading those riders’ absorbed faces in their absorbing books, I’m learning more about them than I would from their Facebook pages.
I’m a little less open, however, about my bible. I’m one of those people who say they’re going to learn Russian so that they can read Anna Karenina in the original. I have and I am. Just as I imagine common folk striving to learn their letters so they could piece together the Bible on their own, I’m crawling through Anna Karenina at the rate of about an hour a page. I read it every day, and when I reach the end, sometime next year, my plan is to start all over again. One’s bibles don’t get old, do they? But this time through is especially grueling, because it’s my first time in Russian.
I print it out in sections from an electronic library, and I carry around with me in a thick cardboard envelope a couple of chapters and a red pen, with a mini-dictionary in my pocket. I underline unfamiliar words and terms; I circle words I can’t find in my dictionary so I can look them up in big dictionaries at home; I pause and puzzle and occasionally glide, as if I’m reading in English. After each chapter (there are 239 chapters), I make myself write up my questions about vocabulary, grammar and phrasing, as well as, most importantly (this is my bible), my very personal responses, the doing of which requires me to reflect upon and translate significant sentences and paragraphs.
So no one sees an Anna Karenina in my hands; they see a man with a red pen knitting his brows and poring over a standard-size sheet of paper. If they happen to see the Cyrillic letters, most bystanders look away. If they don’t see the Cyrillic, perhaps they assume I’m doing Sudoku or a crossword.
At the beginning of the 20th century and the end of his long life, Tolstoy compiled a couple of anthologies of the world’s wisdom for unsophisticated readers. In Readings for Every Day and A Circle of Reading, Tolstoy clipped and rephrased Socrates and George Eliot, Henry George and Sophocles, Dostoyevsky and himself. He went for the gist of the other geniuses’ meanings and didn’t fuss about literal exactitude! I admire his boldness. I, on the other hand, humbly keep to his very words; that, after all, was what I wanted when after reading Anna Karenina 15 or 20 times in English, I thought, “Why do I have to get this secondhand?”
If I could go to a museum and see a Cézanne, why would I look at its reproduction in a book? I decided I would get Anna Karenina as up-close as personally possible. I reasoned (quite reasonably, I thought), “I’m a teacher! I teach language. I can teach myself.” I was influenced, in fact, by Tolstoy, who used to learn languages by getting a New Testament in that language and then deriving the grammar and vocabulary. I could do that!
No, I couldn’t.
Most of us need teachers. Most of my students need teachers, and I hate to admit that I needed one too. So, thank you to Albina at the language school in St. Petersburg, to Katya in Santa Barbara and to Dina here in New York City. They taught me I didn’t know enough to teach myself. But now, after five years of labor and love, I do, and I stumble along. Of course Anna Karenina is way too hard for me, but I persist, partly at least because it is too hard. Those marvelous little stories that Tolstoy—in the midst of writing Anna Karenina!—composed for children’s primers: Those are my speed. They’re challenging and satisfying. But I want my bible. Not counting being a family man, a teacher, an occasional reviewer and editor, my real life continues to be this book.
A friend asked what I’m reading, and I realized all the reading I do for teaching and reviewing, none of it really counts. What am I really reading? I’m reading Anna Karenina! For now, the other books are just to pass the time.
I try not to but find myself complaining about the farming terms that pop up so much in the chapters about Levin or the political issues that occupy Levin’s half-brother and Karenin, because I cannot figure out or divine those words. Or even if I look up plowing, I forget it—I never want to see that word again, but there it is over and over again. At the community college in Brooklyn, my developmental writing and reading students do this too; we learn a word, and for the day we know it. The next day it’s gone:
“Austerity?—Remember, guys?—Austere . . . ? . . . No?”
My students were hoping or thinking that it was a one-day’s-use word. Disposable vocabulary! No such luck either for me with the Russian “plowing” or “forking” (pitch-forking, but it looks like plain “forking”). Fork that!
On the other hand, when Tolstoy describes the psychological states of Anna or Stiva or Kitty, or involves us in the intense conversations between the main characters, I’m right there, in spite of my sloppy, potholed Russian. Tolstoy has been my mentor in understanding psychological states and romantic interactions ever since I read him when I was 18. What I understand of psychology is really Tolstoy’s understanding of psychology. So when I’m with his characters in the midst of those crises, I can turn and tilt the Russian words like pieces of broken glass until I see my way through a whole paragraph or two without a dictionary.
But farming? Economics? Serious discussions that have nothing to do with romantic relationships? I don’t know that language very well, and all my grammatical weaknesses—the Russian perfective, prepositions, participles—cripple me. I do not so much crawl as drag myself with one arm across a dusty plain.
What must it have been like for those readers for whom the only book was the Bible? What about all those tedious lists of laws or names? Could one really go through that, striving to understand filler? There is no filler in Anna Karenina. Because I feel that, when I don’t know a word, I have to look it up, even if it must be a farming implement or a special type of jacket. Sometimes I know all the words in a phrase and I still don’t know what it means—I copy it down and I write my own lame gloss.
Maybe the next time through I’ll know what it really means. Why don’t I simply look in a translation? Because… because I’ve spent all these years trying to learn Russian so that I didn’t have to read translations anymore! It’d be easy, but I’m not going back.
Meanwhile, every once in a while I look guiltily at my old friends on the bookshelves—Trollope, D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Carlos Williams, Jorge Luis Borges—and I feel apologetic. I know I’m neglecting you! I’m in a new exclusive relationship for now. I need to get comfortable—I don’t have time really for any book but this bible!—but I’ll get back to you. That’s what I think. But if I stop circling through Anna Karenina, that means I’m dead—or if I’m lucky I’ll be reading it on a train in a heavenly subway system sitting across from other readers and their bibles.
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