Tag Archives: Tolstoy

No one checks, so go ahead and lie: “What Books Are On Your Nightstand?”

22 Mar

Bookshelf

A person I worked with years ago has since become a famous writer. He has a new book out and was interviewed recently by the New York Times. He did well, especially with the question, “What books are on your nightstand?”

Famous writers who are interviewed know this question is coming. From some of the interviews I’ve read, I’m inclined to think the interviewer should actually go out and check the nightstand.

As I read my former colleague’s interview, I thought about me, not him. He played it relatively straight, with just a touch of levity, and came off looking like the serious writer he is. Should I ever become famous and be the subject of an interview, I’m certain I would blow it with failed humor, misunderstood sarcasm and an attempt to show that seriousness is way overrated.

The worst of it would come with the “book on the nightstand” question.

Have you noticed they don’t ask the more precise, “What books are you reading?” In effect, the interviewer gives the serious writer a polite “out.” The books only have to be on the nightstand, not read.

I can hear myself taking advantage of this loophole and saying:

Mario-Vargas-Llosa“You know, prior to the interview I went to a consignment shop and bought this monstrous piece of furniture. I put it next to my bed and filled it with the great literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries –all the books Joyce Carol Oates has read. OK, now ask me that question again”

Even if I forced myself to answer the question properly, I’m sure I would ruin it by injecting too much honesty.

I’d probably say:

“Look, I get up early and really need eight hours sleep. When I go to bed, I’m tried. I pick up a book and in less than 10 minutes I’m out. Homer’s “Odyssey” is on the nightstand now. I plan to finish it by 2088.”

For me, the other troublesome questions are: “Who is your favorite author?” and “What is your favorite book?”

Most people can answer these questions. I cannot.

I don’t have a favorite color, favorite food or favorite movie, and I certainly don’t have a favorite author or book. The world contains so many varieties of great consumables that I just keep consuming and move on.

Memory also is a problem. I can’t remember which book I liked best. And even if I could, I can’t remember enough about a book to fully understand why I liked it.

I read Moby Dick in college and liked it very much – or so I recall. Yes, I can relate the general story, but I cannot recount specific structure or passages or style or the little stories that fell in between the big one.

When I read Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” and Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War of the End of the World,” I was convinced these monumental works could not have been written without the help of God or muse. Today, it would be impossible for me to go into detail.

Tolstoy_normalMy old colleague mentioned Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as one of his favorite novels. I think I first heard about this book in a joke by Woody Allen, who said:

“I took one of those speed reading courses and read ‘War and Peace’ in one night. It was about Russia.”

After the joke, I decided to read the book – in considerably more time than one night. My recollection today is that I liked the war parts much better than the peace parts. But overall, for my taste, the book read too much like a soap opera (although I’m sure it was much better in Russian)

One doubts oneself when an opinion goes against the consensus of experts, and they consider “War and Peace” supreme. So I was relieved to learn Tolstoy didn’t think much of it.

This was documented in a journal kept by the founder of the college where I work. This founder, a humanist and early advocate of reformed Judaism, made a pilgrimage to Russian to meet Tolstoy, whom he greatly admired. At the time, Tolstoy was a messianic, cult figure trying to establish a new world order. He resided with his followers and acolytes on something resembling a hippie commune.

Tolstoy received the Jewish intellectual and asked if he had read his work. Of course, said the visitor, who mentioned “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”

“No,” said Tolstoy. “Not that crap. I mean my serious work.”

The final difficult question in the standard interview with serious writers is:

“What books are you embarrassed NOT to have read?”

The serious writers save face and stay humble by mentioning one or two or sometimes a single author. I fear I would go on forever.

This is why I prefer the interviewer come to my home. When he asks that final question, I would just point to my monstrous nightstand and we’d be done with it.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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God and Man on a Visit To Russia

8 Sep

I like to think of Jesus as a man so I can marvel at his God-like brilliance and ability to see and express truth.

If you think of him as God, then his acts and works would not necessarily be worthy of attention. Pavarotti, after all, received no praise for humming a pop tune, nor Einstein for giving correct change to the paperboy.

A god can easily transform water to wine; it is much more difficult for a man.

For me, one of Jesus’ greatest moments was when he was approached by spies trying to trick him into sedition. They coyly ask if it was acceptable to pay tribute to Caesar. Jesus, quick on his feet, asked them to produce a coin, which carried Caesar’s image.

Then came the unforgettable, genius response: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In my last post I mentioned a rabbi named Joseph Krauskopf and his visit to Tolstoy in 1894. Today I’d like to discuss Krauskopf and his response when Tolstoy asked him about Jesus.

The intelligence and poetry of the answer brought to mind the “render” response.

In Russia at that time, Jews knew little of Jesus and those familiar with him cared not much for him. But Krauskopf struck Tolstoy as a different breed. The American rabbi from Philadelphia was an early member of the reformed movement and, among other things, advocated moving the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday as a way to bring Christians and Jews together.  He believed that all religions – including his own — contained good and bad, and that the good should be practiced and the bad eradicated.

Some Jews, I’m sure, refused to consider Krauskopf a Jew.

“What is your belief respecting Jesus?” Tolstoy asked.

Krauskopf told the writer, “I regard the Rabbi of Nazareth as one of the greatest of Israel’s teachers and leaders and reformers, not as a divine being who lived and taught humanly but as a human being who lived and taught divinely.

Can we safely say that he who lives divinely is divine?

Sometimes we allow words and their interpretation to muddle or even destroy something that in its raw form and on its own is simply and clearly exceptional.

I would love to hear from others, Christians and Jews, on Krauskopf’s statement about Jesus.

Tolstoy, who wrote of aristocracy, had much in common with the Occupy movement

5 Sep

My work recently brought me to the writings of a reformed rabbi named Dr. Joseph Krauskopf. He lived around the turn of the 20th century. While not well-known today, he was friends with presidents and world leaders during his day.

In today’s light it is easy to categorize him as a visionary and possibly a radical. What may be truer is that free thinking and free speech flourished more then than now, and that others at the time were expressing similar ideas – equality and dignity for all, women’s rights, the end of poverty, a government hand in the inspection of food and housing, world peace.

In 1894 Krauskopf traveled to Russia and met with Count Leo Tolstoy, known now as a great novelist; known then as an incredibly influential, larger-than-life, cultish leader of humanists. Krauskopf, in utter awe of the man, recorded every facet of the meeting. The account is fascinating and revealing. In one exchange, the Russian asks the rabbi if he had read “What to Do,” a work of non-fiction by Tolstoy calling for the liberation of the oppressed.

Krauskopf had not, but said he did read “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”

Tolstoy, according to Krauskopf, described those books as trash and said he would prefer if the world instead read his “serious writings.”

But what I really want to report here is Tolstoy’s timeless description of the United States and its faults.

“You call yourselves a republic; you are worse than an autocracy. I say worse because you are ruled by gold, and gold is more conscienceless, and therefore more tyrannical, than any human tyrant. Your intentions are good; your execution is lamentable. Were yours the free and representative government you pretend to have, you would not allow it to be controlled by the money powers and their hirelings, the bosses and machines, as you do.”

I wish someone would read this from the podium at the Democratic National Convention, or from any podium for that matter.

What are your thoughts?

— Lanny Morgnanesi

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