Anna Karenina: Discussion!

Anna Karenina was really, really good. But as good as it was, it wasn’t an easy read. It took me the better part of 8 weeks to finish it, and I know many of you are still reading or have decided to move on to next month’s book club selection. If I wasn’t the one in charge of this book club, I probably would have done the same.

So, today’s book chat isn’t going to be about the story–though we can talk about some of the finer points if you like. (Anna = poetic justice.) What I really want to do is solve a mystery, and like the mystery of holey t-shirts, I’ll bet I’m not the only one to experience this phenomenon.

Why do I put aside reading books that bring me so much pleasure and instead compulsively devour books I don’t even like?

I really don’t get it. When I sat down to read Anna Karenina–and trust me, I approached it like I was doing homework–I quickly got lost in the characters and the writing. Every other paragraph had me thinking, applying.

Darya Alexandrovna had done her hair, and dressed with care and excitement. In the old days she had dressed for her own sake to look pretty and be admired. Later on, as she got older, dress became more and more distasteful to her. She saw that she was losing her good looks. But now she began to feel pleasure and interest in dress again. Now she did not dress for her own sake, not for the sake of her own beauty, but simply that as the mother of those exquisite creatures she might not spoil the general effect. And looking at herself for the last time in the looking-glass she was satisfied with herself. She looked nice. Not nice as she would have wised to look nice in old days at a ball, but nice for the object which she now had in view.

I couldn’t read for very long; I had to take breaks and mix it up with books that took little brain power. I’m not exaggerating when I say I have read 12 books since I started Anna Karenina. Each and every one was really bad, some of them teetering on horrible. But, boy, did I have no problem staying up hours past my bedtime to figure out if Clary was going to save the world! (The jury is still out, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say she does… in book six, which comes out in 2014. Preorder now!)

Cela n’est pas plus fin que ça, when you get a peep at their cards. I may be inferior to them, stupider perhaps, though I don’t see why I should be inferior to them. But you and I have one important advantage over them for certain, in being more difficult to buy. And such men are more needed than ever.

Does this relate to the studies suggesting the internet makes us stupid, impatient, unable to focus for more than 140 characters? I don’t know.

All I do know is that I finished Anna Karenina and after this post I am going to buy and read something really, really fluffy.

[images: Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina]

Jules Kendall writes about books, family, and easygoing simplicity.


  1. says

    I attempted Anna Karenina years ago and quit because it was so tough. I found the names so difficult to keep straight it was hard to remember which character was which. On the other hand, I also found Lord of the Rings impossible because my brain wouldn’t conjure the images for me. When I read, I ‘make a movie in my head’. Eventually, I found an audio tape of LotR and enjoyed listening to it while I drove. I think I might have another go at AK. Maybe having Russian friends and coped with international names for nearly two decades will make it easier. Or not. Now that I’ve retired I know my brain wants something a bit challenging here and there to keep it in shape. Having made it through law school I’d be amazed if you didn’t need a mental challenge now and then. Fluffy books are fun, but harder books are often more satisfying.

    • says

      The names were difficult for me, too, because I wasn’t sure how to pronounce them. Also, it seems like everyone had a nickname that Tolstoy would use only intermittently. Both of Anna’s loves were nicknamed Alexey.

  2. says

    I understand. I’m in the classical book club with Edie’s group and each book is that way. I do feel some of these great works require two times through to really absorb and even enjoy everything that is said. I’m finishing Plato’s Republic with the book club and I read it once as a philosophy major in undergrad, but only now am really getting it figured out.

    It’s also clear to me that fiction writing has changed dramatically since movies and TV were birthed in society. I wrote a novel and in the process learned all the current “rules” of fiction-writing. They ask you to “show, don’t tell” so that the reader can have a mental movie playing of your story, so many of the current “rules” are centered around just that –giving the movie-trained reader a comfortably ingested story. I don’t think this necessarily has to diminish the possibility of valuable content, but it often does anyway.

    As far as Anna Karenina, I really wanted to pick it up with your club. I tried to read it years ago and failed–I’m slowly working though Crime and Punishment now and it’s easier fir me somehow. But between The Odessey and Plato I can only manage one heavyweight at a time. I do jump into your book club on occasion, love the variety. “An Everlasting Meal” was a great discovery thanks to you!

    • says

      I’m jumping into Edie’s club with The Odyssey. I have owned it for years and am now ready to give it a go. I think what I am going to do is to read one heavy book per month. Or, better stated, to always have one going since I can’t always finish them in a month!

      The more I read, the more I challenge your comprehension, the easier it becomes. In my first year of law school it took me an hour to read and understand one case. By my third year, it took me minutes. That sort of analytical thinking only comes with practice. That’s why they say law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer, it teaches you how to think like a lawyer. The same principle extends to advanced reading, I’m sure. I’ll get back into the swing of things eventually.

  3. Bethany says

    Pacing is a huge thing in novels, and those epic tomes certainly have slower pacing than most modern novels. It’s kind of like how a Mad Men or Downton Abbey episode can take forever (even though you enjoy it), but other shows fly by. There is definitely a skill learned when you figure out how to stay involved in larger, more complicated books. (It would be interesting to compare AK to an epic fantasy series like Game of Thrones–does the action/suspense make a difference?) I <3 the internet so I won't lay full blame at its feet, but our lives aren't necessarily set up for sustained attention.

    My fav thing about AK was finding the parallels. I don't remember names since I read it in May and it was in audio format, but I really liked the parallel between the aristocratic guy who loved his farm and the actual farmwork and the other relationships men had with their women (wives, mistresses, etc.). I think you'd find a similar "love of land" relationship in America and there are some interesting take-aways in how loving your property, your spouse, your seriously long and hard-to-read book take work. It's easy to get disenchanted when you don't see any reason to put in the work, but when you do, you realize how much more fulfilling the work is. See? I even stayed on topic. 😉

    • says

      Great point about pacing! It actually brings up a thought I had but forgot to mention in the post. Part of the problem with older literature is that things don’t really get all that exciting until the half-way point. There is a whole lotta set up! On the other hand, books today–especially the YA genre–start off strong and then peter out. I can’t tell you how many reviews I have read that say the book was good at first, but then got dull. It’s the exact opposite complaint you hear about books like Anna Karenina, Pride & Prejudice, etc.

  4. Samantha says

    I think classic books can be tough since they are written in a style and language that we don’t deal with in our everyday life. I’m an awesome reader and can chug through books on a steady basis…but some classic books make me have to slow down to process the use of language.

    I’ll tell you that, for me, some of the big classics make me go UGGGH and I want to just put them down, but I’ll keep chugging slowly through them because I feel like it’s a book I SHOULD read. I just picked up Anna Karenina at the book store a few months ago. I have a feeling of dread at the thought of reading it, but I’ll do it anyways, because I feel like I should. Plus, I do really love a few of the movie versions….so why not. (:

    • says

      I also feel like they are something I should read. Really, so much of our current literature, film, and music has been informed by these classics that it’s a shame to not visit the source. Take the Bible, for instance. As I have been reading it I have been shocked to discover how often stories from the Bible are pulled, stretched, and then reinterpreted in movies and books today! I had no idea!

      • says

        You are so right! I feel the same! I don’t want a movie character to tell about Anna Karenina, I want to find out by myself! Also, it hurts my pride when I miss a reference, which is really hard when you have grownup in Brazil, I am always looking for the source of Canadian pop culture (I read Margaret Atwood), the shows, the music, the books they read in high school, I am always making up for it, but it is a hobby, so it is fun :)

  5. Susan G says

    I am only on page 80. I have read several books in the meantime – some fluffy but fortunately for me all pretty enjoyable. I’m about to finish A Season of Taste (a quick and interesting read) so I will read some of AK next – you’ve motivated me!

    Oh – and that first picture up there? Absolute perfection!

    • says

      Isn’t it gorgeous? I just can’t get behind Kiera what’s her name as Anna. There is something about her that bugs me. I think my problem is that I went too fluffy with my choices. The good thing, though, is that it made returning to AK so much more enjoyable!

  6. Kristen says

    I finally bought and started Anna Karenina last week because a few of my favorite bloggers, including you, recommended it. (And always with the caveat “It’s a difficult read!”) I’m so glad to know that you still love the book even though it took a while to finish. I’m already in love with the writing style and story lines; as an English Major in college I miss reading classic literature! Thank you for following up with this blog post. It has encouraged me to continue reading just so I know what I’m missing out on!

    • says

      I was not an English major in college (a regret of mine) but I do miss the challenge of reading an intellectually stimulating book. I miss that feeling I get where I know I will never, ever write as well as who I am reading. It’s inspiring.

  7. Anne says

    I read Anna Karenina in middle school (it was worth A LOT of extra credit) and performed part of it in high school for speech and loved it. I would recommend it to anyone (and try to just keep the main characters straight unless you are doing a study!)

  8. Alex says

    I’ve been trying to read The Three Musketeers for about 4 years now, and I’ve only ever gotten halfway. Same with Jane Eyre. I am currently halfway through Anna Karenina and I love it, the hardest thing is to get into it, but once I am, I can read for hours. I try to read two classics a year, things I “missed” during my education, or a revisit to books that I read before I could fully appreciate them.

  9. says

    I am among those that did not finish. It is loaded to my phone’s ebook reader so I have no idea what “page” I’m on, but I’ve been hovering around 9% for about a month now. I picked up 3 more books from the library on Monday so I obviously have no intention of finishing AK any time soon. Maybe I should make that part of my #365MIND goal.

    AK is definitely difficult but also definitely enjoyable. It’s just not easy enough to be my wind-down book. I can’t say for certain if my lack of motivation to read the difficult material stems from the lack of instant gratification or from my own personal preference. Even as an adolescent, I was pulled more toward easy reads. I read for enjoyment more so than to increase knowledge. I suppose it’s the difference between someone who enjoys RomComs on television versus someone who enjoys documentaries. I personally enjoy both but I would always pick a RomCom after a long day.

    • says

      I always pick a RomCom first. They are my very favorite. I unwind with things that make me happy. I get excited for something scary every now and then (we’re watching Walking Dead right now) but there are some nights where I have to tell my husband that I can’t watch it with him. It gets to be too much.

  10. Janine says

    I totally get what you’re saying, about the best books feeling so rewarding but being so hard to keep going with, and how weird it is to have to seek the relief of something brainless. It feels like it makes no sense! But it must make sense, because we all do it. Everyone quits reading heavy pieces of journalism to cruise Perez Hilton or pinterest, sometimes.

    When I read 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 2000, I had to fight through it. The journey was beautiful, but everyone in the book had the same name! The book had a family tree to help you navigate the family specifically because of the repetitive nature of the names. The book is a work of magic realism so unbelievable things were happening in what felt like a time vacuum, so it so easy to wonder “wait, how long did this sleep sickness last? Wait, have I transitioned to a new generation of these families?” and then, at the end of the book, feeling like I had read hundreds of pages of stuff I hadn’t retained that seemed to have no plot, the last ten pages PULLED TOGETHER ALL THE THREADS AND THEMES. The book had a plot, and I had no idea. I had retained it. I understood it. It blew my mind.

    I only stuck with it because it was 2000 and it was top of the list for “best books of 1900 to 1999″. It was such a slog, it took so much work, it was SO WORTH IT. While I read it, I read other things. I watched TV, I took breaks… I needed time to process that I was reading a book that everyone said was brilliant and I was finding engaging to read but appeared to be going nowhere. It was a leap of literary faith and sometimes you need to walk away and mutter about how you MUST be crazy and Buffy is so much more epic and so on.

    I think this experience of needing to put down the really GREAT books and walk away for awhile is how you KNOW they’re great, really. If you need time to think about what you’re reading, it’s a great book.

    • says

      Great comment. Funny thing: 100 Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books of all time. I had no problem with all the names because I am hispanic so I was able to keep everyone separated and apart in my head. Having struggled with the Russian names in AK–and Indian names in two other books I have read in the past–I know exactly what you are talking about. Little things like that can really make a difference in how easy it is for you to read a story.

  11. Kirsten says

    I’m on disc 24 out of 30 on the audio book. 30 discs alone is daunting. I read the book AK a couple of years ago for my neighborhood book club, and did not catch half of the comparisons between the couples that I’ve picked up while listening. Tolstoy can also be pretty funny – but I wasn’t aware of this during the actual read. I am planning on finishing – it’s due in 6 days.
    I did a lot of other reading as well – including January’s book for PIBC – which I definitely needed while plodding through AK.
    How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time – and probably with many other foods along the way.

    • says

      That’s what I did–the one bite at a time thing. I told myself I had to read X number of pages per week. Once I did it like that, it wasn’t nearly as intimidating.

  12. says

    Well, I definitely get what you’re saying. But I do not think it’s the Internet’s fault. People have struggled to read long books — especially those written in a different time period — for decades! (Do you remember how torturous it was for some people to read Shakespeare in high school?!)

    If we want to wax philosophical, we can go back to Hemingway and the idea of writing “one true sentence.” In that excerpt you posted, I was about to pull out my hair. As a copy editor I appreciate a concise thought in a tidy sentence, and that paragraph seemed to say the same thing about 50 times. Apparently I’m of the “less is more” school of fiction. If I wanted long, rambling thoughts I would listen to myself talk.

    So even though I will not be reading Anna Karenina anytime soon, I will end this little ramble by empathizing with you on a shorter book that was also probably more worthy than my usual reads. It took me twice as long to read than it should’ve because it was a character study, some might say true literary fiction, and I was bored half the time waiting for something to happen. Maybe we’re just action junkies.

    • says

      But what makes good copy isn’t always going to be what makes good literature, right? That’s the challenge–adapting our minds to different writing styles. I always joke that law school took the magic out of my writing. I feel it has become too factual, too guarded.

      Did you ever hear about the article or book that suggested Hemingway ruined good literature? I can’t remember where I read it–or what medium–but I thought of it when you mentioned his “one true sentence” style.

      p.s. I could never read Hemingway, and God knows I have tried. I had to slog my way through The Old Man and the Sea.

  13. says

    I picked Anna Karenina as my novel to read for my high school freshman English class. It was way too much for me as a fourteen year old. I had a hard time keeping the characters straight, and I never finished it. To this day, the thought of reading it still intimidates me – although the movie trailer made it look much more interesting than I imagined it to be.

    I don’t read things that I don’t like. Sometimes, I do keep noisy television shows in the background that I don’t like, and it bothers me that I do that.

  14. says

    what a coincidence! I am reading it too! Not for your club but because of the movie coming out and it inspired my name, so it was about time! I am loving it and am not taking breaks to read fluff stuff, but then, I don’t tweet, so maybe I am not stupider yet…

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