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Who Wants to Have a Russian Book Club?

A legend floats around university English programs about two candidates vying for the same job. At a social event, someone introduces a game where you name a famous book that you’ve never read. If anyone else in the ground has read it, then they’re out. The point is to admit to having avoided the most well-known book possible. According to the legend, one of the candidates gets competitive and really starts admitting some huge gaps in reading. Allegedly, he proudly brags about how he never read William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, He immediately wins the game because, of course, everyone has read Hamlet, right?

The next day, the contest winner is passed over for the job. The committee decides they can’t possibly hire a literature professor who hasn’t read Hamlet.

I’m afraid my own deep dark secret is that I managed to avoid the Russian literary masters. Because of my obsession with Raymond Carver I did look into Anton Chekhov. And I am quite familiar with Nabakov.

But Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, those guys? The big novel dudes? Never read them. I think I skimmed Anna Karenina for a class once.

Given the former Soviet Union’s near ubiquity in our news coverage recently, I figure now is as good a time as ever to rectify my reading omission. Where should I start? Who has recommendations? Who wants to slog through some Siberian winters of literature with me?

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