PWCAT: Notes from the Underground

For my next episode of People Who Create Awesome Things I decided to highlight my love of classics. I’ll give a few thoughts on classic literature in general before I introduce my chosen selection.



Classic literature sometimes gets a bad rap as being snooty or highfalutin; but I don’t think it’s fair to treat it so uniformly. Asking someone if she likes classic literature is like asking if she likes music. The next obvious question is, “What kind of music?” I like most music. I also like most classic literature. But I think many people whose tastes are a little more discerning than my own still enjoy at least some kinds of music. I also think many would probably enjoy some kinds of classic literature, even if they’ve been turned off by being forced to read a few selections that didn’t resonate. The trick is finding the authors and works that are compatible with your own tastes and personality.

I could make a few other generalized points, according to my own opinion:

1) Classic literature, considered broadly, often takes more work/concentration to get into than much contemporary popular literature; but I think the payoff tends to be proportionately greater in terms of long term intellectual and emotional stimulation and development.

2) I think the goal should be enjoyment, not being able to say you read something classic (more baldly) or even seeking self-betterment (more commendably). I can see some potential profit in seeking self-improvement/learning life lessons even without the enjoyment; but to me, the pleasure can be the brain’s way of saying, “This is good for you; keep reading.” I do think it’s helpful, though, to discipline your attention span so that you don’t set something aside right away when it doesn’t capture your attention. It might become enjoyable later, if you give it enough time to prove itself on its own terms.

3) Overall, classic works are a safer bet than modern fiction (although I would strongly encourage reading modern fiction as well). The cream rises to the top. Many, many novels have been published over the years that have slowly sunk to the bottom and are no longer well known (some of them good and some of them bad). If something has maintained a good reputation for generations, the chances of its being really good are probably greater than the chances of some recent bestseller that may or may not be forgotten in a few decades. I’m not trying to champion historical snobbery or suggest that authors were inherently better in some other time or culture; I’m just saying your odds of getting a dud are substantially less in the realm of classics. Find the classic authors that suit your personality and your likelihood of enjoying your reads will be pretty high.

But enough of that.

I chose to highlight a creation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky because he’s long been one of my favorite classic authors. His works are preeminently psychological. They are definitely not plot-driven. Some novels seem to think up a plot and then fashion characters that fit the different roles. Dostoyevsky loved to think about different, intriguing sorts of people and imagine how they would respond in different situations, interacting with other different, intriguing, realistic people. Some of my favorite characters and conversations come from his books.

Notes from the Underground is not the first Dostoyevsky book I read (that was Crime and Punishment, which I read some years prior when I was pretty young); but when I did read the former, somewhere near the end of high school or the beginning of college, it immediately cemented his place as a favorite author.

The book is a good introduction to someone who’s never read Dostoyevsky. For one thing, it showcases Dostoyevsky’s psychological prowess, being entirely a study in one character’s mind. It’s a first person account, told through “discovered” private journal entries which simply recount the way of thinking of a very intriguing character. He’s utterly cynical and misanthropic, but he’s very multi-faceted. In a way he’s an amazing narcissist, but his doubt and self-loathing are very real and moving. What makes the read so compelling is the fact that, as Dostoyevsky notes, “such persons…positively must exist in our society…”.

I’ve always loved this book because I’m similar enough to the protagonist that I can deeply empathize. But Dostoyevsky brings the excesses of such a character to a realistic conclusion in a compelling enough way that it serves as a warning against fully giving myself to certain patterns of thinking. In another way, the Notes provide some emotional catharsis: when cynicism-inducing circumstances enter my life, and I’m tempted to follow the protagonist’s thought patterns, I can read the story again and let my negative emotions flow into his own sad case, thus cleansing my psyche of some of the dark parts brewing inside. It’s helpful.

Also, it’s quite short compared to other works by the same author (my copy is 91 pages); so it’s a manageable first read to help you discover whether Dostoyevsky is a good fit for you.

I leave you with a link and (I can’t help myself!) the curiously jarring first sentences:

I AM A SICK MAN….I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.

Read the whole work here; or buy a copy here.


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