Friday, June 29, 2012

June Reading

Here's what I read in June.

I only read one complete book in June, but it was a substantial one--Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.  This was the second time I'd read the book.  It was an assignment in my AP English class back in high school, and I made it until the last few pages of the book before I just quit on it.   Today, I am an AP English teacher, and I am starting out the school year next year with this novel.  Since I didn't make it to the end back in 1994, I found this as a chance of redemption (dare I say resurrection?) and I jumped energetically into the task.

As I stated earlier, Crime and Punishment was not too difficult a read.  I had more trouble with Dickens's Hard Times, a book that took me eight painful weeks to finish.  While Dostoevsky's pages did exactly fly by, his novel was so gripping and compelling that I always looked forward to my next opportunity to pick it up again.  

Why should anyone ever want to read Crime and Punishment, when there are more enjoyable reads to choose from?  Well, because it is worth it.  Dostoevsky presents an extended philosophical, moral, and psychological dilemma in the form of Raskolnikov and his crime, and then takes 500 pages to examine it from all angles.  It is a rumination on good and evil, freedom and unfreedom, power and weakness.  In scrutinizing the acts of the characters of the novel, you cannot help but scrutinize your own actions.

Reading this book, I began questioning the morality of my own actions.  Obviously, I haven't murdered anyone with an axe recently, but I do have a lot in common with Raskolnikov, and so do you.  Like Raskolnikov, we are living in a society full of unhappiness and poverty (and, in Memphis, insufferable heat!), and we are trying to lead the happiest life we can while doing as little harm to others.  I consider myself a secular humanist, as Raskolnikov does, and I try to live in a way that only benefits society.  However, like Raskolnikov, I often react with disgust at the actions of certain human beings, and sometimes feel superior to them.  I try not to allow greed to motivate me, but I am fantastically wealthy in comparison to many in my city, and I consequently wield power over them.  It's easy to pat myself on the back for being a moral, just person, but reading Crime and Punishment reveals my bourgeois smugness.

Okay, I'm getting overly philosophical here, but there were two moral dilemmas that emerged as I was reading Crime and Punishment that seemed germane to the questions Dostoevsky brings up.  The first concerns the morality of stealing music.  Emily White, an intern at National Public Radio posted a blog on, attempting to justify that most of the music in her vast collection is stolen.  David Lowery replied to this blog with an open letter that called her out on her moral relativism and challenged music lovers (including myself) to stop committing a legal and moral crime and convincing ourselves we are doing nothing wrong.

The second moral dilemma concerns a bit of controversial legislation that you may have noticed popping up in the news recently.  Now, I'm only going to dip my toes in the pool of the Affordable Care Act; suffice to say that I am in favor of it and was elated to see that it had survived the Supreme Court challenge.  Raskolnikov believes that some people are not worth saving, that society would do better to eliminate those who do not contribute.  It takes him five hundred pages of anguish to find out that this is folly, and that all human life is equal and irreplaceable.  I believe that President Obama's health care act will reduce human misery and give millions of people a shot at a better, longer life.

Why read Crime and Punishment?   It grabs you by the chin and makes you look at your life, and that's something we all need to do once in a while.

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