Booby Books: Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground”

Welcome to the first featured title in “Booby Books.” Booby Books are chosen because they can educate, not entertain. They’ll often be difficult slugging, but everything worthwhile is.

These are not book reviews. The Booby won’t give you plot summaries, synopses, or babble about “character development”. He’ll tell you how each book might contribute to your developing worldview, and potentially empower you, enlighten you, or whatever the heck you may want to call it

So, let’s jump in with both webbed feet, and start with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground.

There’s not a goddamn thing about this book that’s pleasant or entertaining. It’s like taking a tour through the critical care ward at a local hospital, except you’re looking at broken souls instead of broken bodies.

True, this short little tome focuses on but one man, yet he presents us with an array of pathologies, afflicting millions of us to some degree, and all of which stem from powerlessness. Does such a little man as the narrator of Notes really exist? Undoubtedly, somewhere. But more importantly, among his many stomach-turning characteristics there are always one or two that may apply to any given reader.Notes_from_underground_cover

Does this little book’s anti-hero say or do things we find particularly aggravating? Perhaps we’re seeing parts of ourselves we’ve never seen before. And it hurts to see them. Perhaps something jogs a distant memory of a similar thought, deed, or more likely, non-deed. Be honest.

This is what makes Notes From Underground (and Dostoevsky’s works in general) so difficult to stomach, and yet so important to get through. Until you’ve seen the festering symptoms of powerlessness you may not even know that you suffer from your powerlessness.

In every man’s memories there are such things as he will not reveal to everyone, but perhaps only to friends. There are also such as he will reveal not even to friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. Then, finally, there are such that a man is afraid to reveal even to himself, and every decent man will have accumulated quite a few things of this sort.

–  From Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

While not meant as entertainment, the main character does at least provide many an occasion to laugh out loud. Of course, sickness and powerlessness are not things to be laughed at, but when humanity’s undergrounders attempt to beautify their various afflictions they become veritable peacocks, intellectual peacocks, even.

Actually, it’s one of nature’s least appreciated spectacles, and Dostoevsky’s anti-hero provides we, the readers, with a most gaudy display. And we are always left to wonder whom the peacock’s display is intended to impress. Strangers? Acquaintances? Or the player himself?

Notes is not a long book, but it’s one of the few that can be life-changing if you read it with your defences down. The Booby recommends the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.

It is widely available..