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I am on Spring Break this week and, in an effort to get back up to speed on my reading, have declared this the week of the (short) novel.  My goal is to knock out at least five books over the next seven days.  To that end, I will be reading only novels, mostly short ones at that.  The first such novel is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

Dostoevsky is another of the many great authors whose works I have never found the time to read.  Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are both sitting on my shelves right now, slowly accumulating a layer of dust.  My experience with Russian literature is limited to War and Peace and a few Solzhenitsyn books.  I enjoyed each of those tremendously, and was especially struck by a certain inherent ‘Russian-ness’ they seem to possess, a way of connecting philosophical issues to real-world concerns without pretension or blatant intellectualizing.  Even with those positive experiences behind me and a reputation that includes praise from the likes of Nietzsche (not one to throw compliments around), I could never seem to work up the courage to tackle Dostoevsky.  That changed with Notes from Underground.

Notes is presented as the memoir of an unnamed narrator.  The first section is a monologue in which the narrator rails against the predominant Western philosophy taking over Russia at that time.  The narrator particularly takes aim at the notion that a man always seeks his own advantage, and that science can educate all of mankind into seeking what is advantageous as a whole.  The narrator insists that the opposite is true– man often knowingly seeks his own disadvantage.  His own life is an example, and he describes his character in an effort to prove his point.  This eventually leads to the second part of the book, in which the narrator recounts a series of events that show him consciously acting to his own detriment.  The ultimate message is that man is imperfect and imperfectable, an unpredictable creature who cannot be educated beyond this unpredictability.

Notes from Underground is an amazing book.  The narrator is a very unique figure who also somehow manages to represent mankind as a whole.  Dostoevsky’s wit and intellect are marvelous.  Very little actually happens in this book and yet it is impossible to put down.  Although written 150 years ago, the book is fresh and vibrant.  The rejection of philosophical systematizing marked the beginning of the existential movement and highlights one of the most important intellectual debates of the past century.  Whether you are interested in philosophy or just looking for a good read, you can’t go wrong with Notes from Underground.

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