Reading Dostoevsky: A tale of collaborative reading

by Mr. Sheehy

A story written to illustrate our strategy for interacting with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

In 1924, a teacher in rural Montana purchased a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov and spent an entire winter reading it. He could have read it faster, but he had enjoyed Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment so much he considered it his favorite book, and he felt like he’d only begun to grasp the levels of meaning it held. Thus, he wanted to consume as much as he could of the text many considered to be Dostoevsky’s greatest.

His strategy was simple – wipe away any hesitation about writing in the book. He would not keep it as a collector’s item – its real value lay in the meaning of the words, and the best way to obtain that wealth was to interact with it: ask Dostoevsky his questions, share with him his reactions, add to Dostoevsky’s points his own experience. And so he did, often reading only 10 pages during an evening’s sitting and then returning to the same pages the following night.

On occasion, if a theme struck him particularly hard, he wrote to his finance about it, knowing that she shared his interest in great literature and philosophy. She had read the novel, but not in years, so aside from a reminder here and there, the teacher limited his conversation to his own most compelling thinking. The letters, though academic sounding to one who skimmed them, contained rich detail about the teacher’s inner life and experiences in Montana – a place to which his finance planned to move in the spring, when they’d marry.

He finished the book in late winter, and, having filled half its margins with his reactions and questions, lay it on the table, knowing he had gleaned from it as much as he was able. He married that spring and continued to read more books, though not always as slowly and thoroughly as he had The Brother’s Karamazov. He and his wife raised three children, all girls, and when he died rather young (56), their mother moved in with the eldest daughter. She asked the girls to divide up her and her husband’s excess belongings, and the middle daughter took most of his books, as she had taken to literature more eagerly than her sisters.

That autumn, she picked up The Brother’s Karamazov, and when she saw her father’s notes, she realized the richness of what she held. For a week, she carried the book around the house, perusing each of her father’s notes and only the first page of the novel. She needed to read it, she knew, but she also knew she could not read it as she normally read. Her father’s dedication to this text compelled her to treat it more weightily than any novel she’d read prior. Not knowing how to go about such a task, she asked her mother during her biannual visit to her sister’s. “Read it as your father read it,” her mother advised, and reaching into her husband’s desk, pulled out a pencil and stack of letters.

The daughter began that night, jotting questions to both Dostoevsky and her father in the remaining spaces of the margins. Every week or so, she wrote a letter to her mother exploring the issues and observations she’d had regarding the book. When she finished in late winter, she put the book on the table, knowing she had gleaned from it all that she and her father could.


Original image: ‘° c a n d l e l i g h t °‘ by: di