When I talk with people about books I am reading or favorite books I have read, I always mention Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Often the person looks at me like I have three eyes.
Having read a bunch of his books, I want to offer some tips and encouragement. They are certainly challenging, a far cry from many of the popular books that dominate American bestseller lists. His books are long on dialogue and often lack much description of the surrounding landscape. It would not be wrong to call Dostoyevsky a philosopher, with his philosophy veiled in novels. His novels are quite psychological as he dives deeply into the human mind and motivations. Through all of this he asks deep questions of meaning and morality, often seen as one of the early existentialists.
First, what books of his should you read and in what order?
Start with Crime and Punishment, the story of a man named Raskolnikov who plans a murder to steal money. Much of the novel is his mental anguish before and after this crime. After this move on to The Idiot. The Idiot is the story of Prince Myshkin, a kind and gentle man who has recently returned to Russia from a Swiss sanatorium. Myshkin’s kindness is overwhelmed by the depravity of those he meets. They see him as an idiot and, more or less, end up driving him insane.
After this you could try Dostoyevsky’s first work, Poor Folk. It is quite different then his later works, but shorter and very readable. Poor Folk is often paired with House of the Dead which tells the story of a man’s time in a forced labor camp in Siberia. This is somewhat autobiographical as Dostoyevsky had spent time in such a prison. I found this book one of the more difficult to read (playing the old House of the Dead videogame was much easier), though it was an interesting glimpse at prison camp life.
Another short, and much different in style, book is Notes from the Underground. The first half of this book reads like a diary, the rantings of a man against the popular philosophy of the day. In this you get a glimpse of Dostoyevsky’s philosophy examining questions of meaning, morality, free will and determinism. The second half of the novel is a story. The underground man whose diary we have been reading emerges and we read of his, shall we say, adventures. I recall it was a weird story, but worth the read as it fills out the philosophical rantings of the first part with narrative.
Dostoyevsky’s best work, and my favorite novel ever, is The Brothers Karamazov. You could certainly read this work before the others. I save it for here as it is long and intimidating so reading the others would prepare you for it. We meet three brothers – the saintly Aloysha, the intellectual atheist Ivan and the hedonist Dmitri. Conflicts with their father, his murder and fantastic dialogue make this book a must-read. Included in it is some of the best writing on the problem of evil as well as the haunting story-within-a-story, the Grand Inquisitor.
Finally, there is The Possessed, also known as Demons. I found this book to be the most difficult of all that I have read. Dostoyevsky has written other books, but the above are all I have read.
Another tip I would give is to Utilize Help. Do not be above utilizing Sparknotes or other internet helps. Read summaries to familiarize yourself with the setting and context of the writing.
Also, Watch Out for the Names! This can be one of the most frustrating things. Not only are the names incredibly long and complex, but every character has a variety of nicknames. You may think you are meeting a new character only to realize it is one you’ve already met but who is now being addressed differently. Or you may lost track of who is who.
Finally, Be Patient. These books are not quick reads. They are challenging. But so much of our life in 21st century America is fast paced, filled with sound bites and social media. Reading challenging books is beneficial. So if you’ve never read Dostoyevsky, give it a shot!