By Leo Tolstoy
Published serially 1873-1877
Published in book form 1878
This reader is publishing this essay on a book read several years ago because it was a great example for this reader about the experience of listening to the book vs reading “with your eyes”. Tolstoy’s “first novel” and very great work is a large one—850+ pages or so. Dispersed within the story of two marriages—the crumbling of Anna/Alexey Karenin’s marriage and creation and maturation of Kostya Levin/Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage—Tolstoy has long extensive sections on hunting, harvesting grain, serfdom, political discussions at a dinner party, sending soldiers to a war of unclear purpose, and several others. This reader may have struggled through these sections if reading the hardcopy (or Kindle!) version of the novel, but was enriched by them when they were being read by a good reader and the reader was walking, exercising, driving, gardening, cleaning, or many other types of activities that allowed concentration on both the book and the task. I heartily recommend this form of reading to enable immersion in books.
Tolstoy provides an interesting look at Russian society shortly before the freeing of the serfs, with particular emphasis on the arrangement and state of marriage in upper society with respect to the public and personal expectations of marriage. Anna is in an arranged marriage that “saves” her from a situation of no wealth and no obvious family with which to live. However the marriage is not personally fulfilling to her, and perhaps not to her husband. While perfectly acceptable to have discreet affairs to “fill the gap” of an unsatisfying marriage, Anna chooses a different path with her Vronsky. Tolstoy uses this story to develop his thesis that an eternal error men makes is in “imagining that happiness consists in the realization of their desires”. However, the maturation of Kostya Levin and Kitty Shcherbatsky’s marriage may contradict this thesis. However they chose their marriage following a courtship focused on love (as possible within the constraints of society) and live in the country, generally unblemished by the trends and pressures of society.
Obviously there is much Tolstoy covers in 850+ pages which is not discussed here. Listen to the book to find out the rest. One last remark, however, regards the volume of books published while Anna and Vronsky are exiled to his country estate and the volume of books published now. Anna and Vronsky read essentially everything that was being published at the time in French or Russian—history, science, fiction, poetry, etc. It would be impossible to read even a small percentage of everything published now even when a person’s life is devoted to nothing but reading. This reader benefits from book clubs which provide a great selection of books for the discussion season—either by the learned facilitator compiling the list for the season (and one providing “off-season suggestions) or through suggestions from well-read members which is winnowed down to a list for the season. Usually the lists contain books this reader would never otherwise read but are enriching in usually many ways.
Bottom lines: 1) Engage with audiobooks to expand your reading experience (and probably your reading volume) and 2) Seek out and join book discussion groups that can help find books worth your limited time to read and that can provide a great experience in digesting these books in ways you can’t by yourself alone.