The Brothers Karamazov broke me. It straight-up broke my will.
Before that point, in my early community college days, I fancied myself as a young literati in the making. This was years before I ever had the courage to put pen to paper and transfer stories from my brain to a physical medium, but I still had this vision of myself as a man of letters, a cultured, educated person, with a deep understanding of Shakespeare, able to quote Montaigne or Kafka, sitting in some corner cafe and sipping a cappuccino while I read Sartre. Then that artsy girl sitting over by the wall would notice me, dammit!
This is why I thought I needed to read The Brothers Karamazov. I mean, I was smart. I was a reader. I’d gotten through the unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’d read Celine and Conrad and Heller and Huxley. I gritted my teeth and finished Dostoevesky’s other much-celebrated wall of text, Crime and Punishment. Surely, I would enjoy this famous, well-known, important book, right? Wrong. Good god. I gave it a try, I really did. But I’ve read more engaging soil-science textbooks.
The funny thing is, as a writer, I never wanted to be great. I’d like to be good, sure. I’d like to be entertaining. But it’s never been my goal to be profound or brilliant. Tough talking detectives. Dangerous dames. Vampires, zombies, spaceships. Dinosaurs. Vampires fighting zombie dinosaurs in spaceships. My inner world has always been sleazy and pulpy. Adventure and escapism was what sparked my love for reading in the first place. So why, now, was I turning my back on my first love for this stodgy old bitch of a novel?
And that’s the thing I realized, sitting on that bench outside the library at the community college, as I slogged through page after page of Fyodor Dostoevski’s seminal doorstop. I realized, I’m not enjoying this at all. I realized I wasn’t doing it because I liked it. I wasn’t doing it because I was gaining knowledge or insight or context or appreciation of the world. I was doing it to feed my ego. So I could be that smart guy. So I could look down on the uneducated rabble and laugh snootily. “What’s that you’re reading, Stephen King? Oh my word, how very jejune…”
That same day, I dropped The Brothers Karamazov, with a weighty thump, into the library’s book return. And I checked out a dog-eared paperback copy of Stephen King’s The Stand.
Since then, my primary judgement of “good book” or “bad book” are the simple questions: Do I give a shit? Do I care what happens next? Do I want to turn the page?
Now I’m not saying that there isn’t great literature out there to be had. Steinbeck and Hemingway were both writers who will practically bash you over the head with their brilliance, yet their stories are entirely readable. I want to turn that page. And even popular authors have gems of wisdom and insight hidden within their pulpy adventure stories. It’s like they can’t help it. The greatness just oozes out, somehow. Nelson DeMille is a perfect example. His bread and butter is writing airport-bookstore paperbacks about terrorists blowing up New York or whatever, and yet if you read The Gold Coast or Up Country, you’ll see soul-baring storytelling that approaches brilliance. The same with Philip K. Dick. It’s like he was trying to write pulp sci-fi, but somehow wound up with philosophy. Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, in their day, were considered cheap trash writers. And now they’re classics.
Now, don’t let me stop you from trying out Dostoevski. He is still in print after 150 years, and I guess that has to mean something. Just because it wasn’t for me, doesn’t mean it won’t be for you. The point is, you don’t owe a book a damned thing. If you don’t feel like it’s grabbing you, if you don’t give a shit and you have no desire to turn the page, kick it to the curb and go find something you do like. Even if I wrote it. Even if you’d be embarrassed if that artsy girl in the cafe saw you reading it.