Once upon a time, I was a non-hippie proto-post-punk semi-amniotic undergraduate at UCSD, floundering in the concrete-and-topsoil wastes of an almost brand-new Muir College—searching for a major, a mentor, or something magic (not to mention another bag of pot or an exotic flavor of LSD). A professor called me into his office one day to discuss a paper I had composed for his literature class, something breezy about a book I found baffling, The Tales of Hoffman. This professor asked me what my favorite books were, and I replied, mumbling, trembling, that Jack Kerouac was my hero, that I loved his wild and hastily built beatnik anthem, On the Road. This kindly professor coughed into his fist and recommended a rapid-fire list of novels (not books, but novels!) that he thought I might find more substantial, more fulfilling, that weren't composed on butcher paper and stained with Zinfandel and amphetamine crumbs. He invoked the litany and fired the canon: Melville, Mann, Joyce, Faulkner, Mailer. Yikes. Needless to say, the following year I fled UCSD, after my advisor (a mathematician) remarked bluntly, "Dave, I don't think we have what you're looking for."
In ensuing years, I found myself drawn to books that mirrored my dismal chiaroscuro attitudes toward life and myself. Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird, Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, and the trusty crusty Kurt Vonnegut, whose bitter vision of the world was at least tempered by humor, however black (back in the halcyon days of Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five).
During this dark time in my life, reading was selective — books were nothing more than reminders of emotional trauma felt. Art imitated what I perceived to be the raw limits of life. I would seek out the latest collection of Bukowski poems, for instance — to wallow in depictions of madness and defeat, to embrace a stark vision of existence that resembled my own. (Ah, Buk, thanks! Now that's reality!)
Now, 20 years after UCSD, I'm a college instructor myself, and Fyodor Dostoevsky is my favorite author. I don't claim to have read all his work backward and forward, in the original, or with undying regularity ("Why, yes, Jeeves — I must re-read Crime and Punishment each spring. It buoys my constitution ..."). Instead, a few years ago — during an unforgettable seminar at St. John's College beneath the abundant blue skies of New Mexico — I finally enjoyed one of those ennobling experiences that literature instructors describe, in unquiet desperation, as they struggle to justify the study of Great Works to perplexed and unwilling undergraduates. It was a collective venture — a small group of us, led by our tutor, embarked on a marvelous literary journey: the study of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov (at St. John's there are no professors; a teacher is called a tutor, and a tutor is referred to as "the best student in the class"; semantics facilitates art; cough, cough).
We had our mentor, and the magic followed — just the names of the characters themselves sound as elevating as mantras to me now: Alyosha, Mitya, Smerdyakov, Zosima. Against Dostoevsky's sweeping panorama of 19th-century Russia, with its unrelenting portrayal of social and ethical and (dare I say it?) spiritual dynamics, my former literary faves appeared as no more worthy than footnotes to the fictional majesty unfolding before us. In contrast to the stunning depiction of the Grand Inquisitor, Bukowski's clobbered poetic persona took on all the power of a beetle scuttling at night among ash cans in a dark alley. In relation to the depth of Father Zosima's spiritual vision, the incessant ravings of a Celine became trivial. In light of Alyosha's transforming innocence, along with his father's depravity, his brother Dmitri's passion, his other brother Ivan's ratiocinations, the bastard Smerdyakov's grotesque designs — the books that I counted as my touchstones for the melancholy philosophy of life I brought with me to St. John's began to recede into some kind of psychic mist. Believe me. Art resuscitates life.
Our little band of "seminarians" couldn't get enough of the Brothers K. We gathered after class in the dining hall, in the dorms, beneath trees, at restaurants in town, sharing our excitement and discoveries — retelling the phenomenal escapades of Father Ferapont, debating the subtleties of the murder scene, recounting the masterful portrayal of Dmitri's trial. We even compared translations, divided into two camps - the Garnetts and the Magarshacks. Never before had reading a book become such an experience — not merely the process of checking an all-too familiar pocket mirror for the cracks and pits I knew were there, but an involvement in the protean expanses of the human heart — any heart, our heart, my heart.