An Ambitious Project: Reading The Great Canon That Is Russian Literature

Okay, everyone, I have a fabulous idea for a project I want to do. Unfortunately, like many projects I seek to take on, it’s very ambitious and I don’t know if I have any time whatsoever for it. But before I tell you about this vast undertaking, let me explain a few things.

Doctoral Degrees

Whenever people hear “PhD,” they always think of the doctoral dissertation, or thesis, or whatever it’s called in your country—and rightfully so, since this is the crowning achievement of a doctoral student, the main obstacle to receiving the degree. However, it’s not the only hoop an intrepid doctoral student must jump through. I have no idea what it’s like in the sciences or social sciences, but in most of the humanities fields, students must pass something called comprehensive exams before they can start working on their dissertations. To prepare for this exam, students must read volumes upon volumes of work. In history, this usually takes the form of history books, both in your field and out. In literature, as you’d imagine, students must read literature in their chosen field (i.e. students of Spanish literature read a ton of books from the canon of Spanish-language writing, going back centuries; students of Russian do the same but with Russian works, etc.).

Needless to say, preparing for these exams is time-consuming and very stressful. After all, the exam itself is often oral and involves the best scholars in the field grilling you about obscure elements of your field. (I’m actually getting stressed just thinking about it.)

The Project

I want to read more Russian literature. The canon is so vast that I cannot hope to read it all—nor would I want to, as the vast majority of it is probably quite bad. (This goes for any language. There are a ton of bad books written English as well.)

To narrow my focus on Russian literature, I have turned to the reading lists for doctoral students in Slavic literature at Harvard and Yale, two of the top programs in the country. (And two that are gracious enough to publish their lists online!) You can see Harvard’s list here and Yale’s here (both links in PDF format, for easy downloading). The lists do differ, but many of the major works appear on both. (It would be a crime against humanity if grad students in Russian literature didn’t read Tolstoy, you know what I mean?)

So you’re really going to read all those books? And in Russian to boot?

Well, no. Let me explain: the Harvard list has a lot of early Russian works (“early” being defined as “starting in the eleventh century”). Aside from not knowing where I would acquire those, I’m not as interested in reading old Russian. Sure, it would be intriguing to observe the changes that have occurred since then, but I am more interested in improving my command of modern Russian, so I don’t plan to read anything written before the eighteenth century or so. I do plan to read them in the original Russian, though.

I also may add to the list. Case in point: Ivan Bunin has made his way onto it, but neither university requires his memoir of the Civil War, Cursed Days, which I really want to read. Ditto for Mikhail Bulgakov: his early stories do not make the list, either, but I’d like to read them. And Yale, for some inexplicable reason, does not require Isaak Babel’s Red Cavalry, which contains some of the finest writing I have ever read. (If you’re going to read Red Cavalry in English, read this edition, please. It is a wonderful translation.)

Why do this? What’s the benefit?

In short, I want to learn more about Russian literature, and it certainly doesn’t look like I’m going to go to grad school anytime soon (and on the off chance I go, think of how far ahead I’ll be compared to everyone else!). For me, reading Russian literature is fun. Once I finish the vampire novel I’m reading in Russian (don’t laugh, it’s actually really good), I plan to start on this project. I don’t envision a specific order for the books—I’ve been wanting to try Doctor Zhivago for a while now, so that may be what I read next. Of course, I may change my mind and start of really ambitiously with War and Peace, but only if I’m feeling especially courageous.

And, of course, I’ll be blogging about the whole thing. Get ready for the awesomeness, everyone. And let me know if you have any suggestions for this project.


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