The Brothers Karamazov is the best book I have ever read.
I read it in Bangkok on early morning bus rides from Ratchada Pisek Road to Union Language School on Suriwongse road in 1987. I read it in coffee shops like the UCC in Robinsons department store on the intersection of Silom Road and the Rama 4 road, just in front of the Thai-Japanese overpass. Also, on the ascetic comfort of my coconut mattress at Bob and Thoi’s house, I read it in dim light with my window mounted air conditioner buzzing noisily.
It’s Mike Cain’s fault. He gave me a list of essential books that an educated man should have on his shelf. Mike is the smartest person I had ever met. So I read my way through his list. I kept it in the back of my bible with check marks beside the ones I had finished.
Mike was also a fan of Dostoyevsky. The Brothers Karamazov was the first book on the ‘to read’ list.
Nearing the end of the story, I wished for more. I turned each page pensively, wishing they would reproduce like the loaves and fishes when Jesus fed 5000 people with two loaves of bread a few fish. On the last page I already wished for a selective memory eraser so that I could start it again with the same curious drive to get into Dmitri, Ivan, and the other characters brought to life by the Russian Master.
I like the ‘What’s your favorite book’ game. Depending on the book, this small talk conversation can go deep fast. So when I take people to the border to visit Partners Relief & Development projects, I often make it part of the repertoire.
You know that if someone choses a Bill Bryson book, the a Short History of Nearly Everything, that this is a smart person with a good sense of humor who likes to talk about mechanical stuff, who likes to learn. If they say the Hobbit, you know they have a rich imagination and are drawn to everyman metaphors. And if they say something like Tozers Pusuit of God, or Packers Knowing God, you know you have a deep one in the passengers seat; a person who you may love, or dislike intensely, so proceed with this talk cautiously.
The ones who say the Bible is their favorite book usually haven’t read the Bible and don’t read other books either. That’s when I change the subject to other small talk conventions (like what’s your dessert-island-soundtrack) to avoid an awkward moment.
Ok, so playing the favorite-book-game on a drive to Mae Sot a few years ago, I gave my standard answer. “My favorite book ever is the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” That usually puts me in a serious position of conversational advantage. It makes me into the serious reader, the intellectual, the one who takes his reading seriously. I always go last. It impresses passengers.
Oddny was in the back seat with a couple of other girls. She looked up at me through the rear view mirror and said,
“Steven, what is that book about?”
“Umm, Dmitri, Ivan, and two kinds of way of being.”
“So what’s the plot”
“Well, it’s about these two brothers and their dad and a lover. In the end I decided I want to be like Dmitri.”
“Because he was passionate while Ivan was all in his head.”
“Steven, I don’t think you can say that’s your favorite book anymore.”
“You don’t even know the story.”
That hurt. Giggles from the back seat confirmed that my superior sense of culture was a farce. Kind of not fair actually. Because it was the best book I had ever read. But Oddny did have a point. If you can’t tell why it was a great book maybe you better chose a lower shelf.
I read Douglas Coupland’s Life After God in a day. I can tell you what the book is about and why it made me cry. Maybe that should be my favorite book.
Is it allowed to have a favorite book that you don’t remember the plot to, just the feeling of joy while reading it?