A classics education, or, Would You Like a Brag With That?


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Pevear/Volokhonsky transl.)

I swung by Borders today to pick up a copy of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Crime and Punishment. We're reading it in the library's Classics Group in a couple months and I want to get a head-start on something that may take a while to read with suitable attention, allowing time to fit in a little critical reading if I have the chance.

Borders had it, somewhat surprisingly. Only one copy, but space is premium, etc. All was well with the world.

I went to the cash register, paid, and as the clerk took my credit card she asked, "Is this for you?" Then, "Do you need a gift receipt?" I replied yes and no, respectively. As she handed me back my credit card and I turned to leave, she called out a loud, "Congratulations!"

Congratulations? On buying a book? If she thinks that's great I should have told her I can go potty all by myself.

I paused a second, unsure how or if to respond. But there were people in line after me, so in consideration of them I turned and walked away. Though afterward I felt uncomfortable having said nothing, feeling more than a little gobsmacked it happened in the first place.

My first question should have been "Why?," in case there was some reason she thought what I was doing was worthy of an 'atta girl! Maybe there's something I was missing, something that just didn't occur to me. But it came off sounding like No one without a great deal of intelligence is capable of reading a classic work of Russian literature, so you deserve a pat on the back. Oh, and by the way, you don't look the type to handle this book.

Tell me, does this sound difficult?:

"At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S___y Lane, walked into the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K____n Bridge."

That's the beginning paragraph of the book. Anything unclear about that? Anything obscure? I didn't think so.

Maybe it's the English major in me, or, now, the librarian, that let her inane comments get under my skin. But they certainly did, enough to make me want to write about what should have been a pretty routine errand – certainly nothing worthy of celebration. If I'd paid my water bill would I be writing about that? Would I receive congratulations for it? Doubtful, unless something unusual or dramatic were related to it, like if I literally dragged myself from home to the village hall, determined to pay my bill if it killed me, dammit!

Next time anything like this happens I hope I'll take the time to ask what made the event so special, rather than just letting it go because that's the easier route. I'd feel a lot more inclined to congratulate myself about that.

4 thoughts on “A classics education, or, Would You Like a Brag With That?

  1. I was a huge fan of the Suzette Haden Elgin series The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defence (though, being an American, she spelled it “defense”). Elgin is a linguist and I love her calm, common-sense approach. One thing in particular that stuck with me was her advice when confronting a statement that, on the surface, may seem to be untrue: “Imagine it is true and what it would be true of.” It took me ages to get that. I’m a bit slow on the uptake.
    So, let’s pull ourselves out of our own perspectives for a minute and imagine this book-shop cashier’s world. I’ll go first. I imagine she spends the bulk of the day ringing up copies of Twilight, The Da Vinci Code,various diet tomes, you get the idea. Then someone walks up and purchases Crime and Punishment. Possibly, she does some shelving too, and also knows it’s the only copy in the store. Maybe she’s been longing for someone to buy it, as a sort of antidote of ringing up countless paperbacks with pink covers. Heck, I might congratulate you too!
    Now, let’s imagine how astonished and possibly hurt she’d be to learn that you’d taken umbrage at her innocent and well-intentioned remark. You go next…


  2. Likewise, I’m usually extremely slow on the uptake. Or, sometimes I see bad intention where there was none. And I’m terrible as far as sticking up for myself in pretty much all situations having to do with strangers.
    Your idea of the scenario is definitely plausible. It may have been something like this, but in a short conversation there was no time to get all that said. Heck, I probably do that to other people, too, without even thinking about it.
    Or, she could have been thinking the classics are old and stale, so who wants to waste time reading them when there are so many “good” books? Now that activates the librarian in me, the one who has to suppress her shiver of revulsion when looking for titles like, “Love’s Throbbing Passion” for a patron, because she loves the series. Same prejudice, in reverse.
    Communication’s an interesting topic. I’m sure a philosopher/psychologist would bring in the Ego, Super Ego, etc., as far as how we immediately judge what we think others are trying to say to us.
    Sounds like a lot of my therapy sessions, actually! Where’s Carole? She was a therapist…


  3. I am a huge fan of Russian literature, although Crime and Punishment disappointed me a bit as the crime was committed in the first 50 pages or so and all I was left with was his thoughts on punishment. Still, I’m hosting The Brothers Karamazov this April as a read along, in case you finish Crime and Punishment and want a little more! 😉


  4. Bellezza, BK, eh? I read that one years and years ago, when I had at least one toddler running around, so I had to tackle it when the kids were down for a nap. Took me months to get through it. It’s a good book, though packed with Dostoyevsky’s philosophy and politics. Those sections took forever to get through, and made my brain hurt. But I’ll keep it in mind.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s