Why is Anna Karenina So Long?

On Insta-life and long stories.

While working in Istanbul as a recent college graduate, a friend visited me. She was reading Dostoevsky. I have not read Dostoevsky. I saw an [unsuccessful] adaptation of The Idiot as a musical, but that is the limit of my Dostoevsky experience.

“Why are you reading Dostoevsky?” I asked my friend, curious.

“It’s just one of those things that I wanted to say that I had read.”

That struck me as a very millennial type of comment. I don’t have any particular interest, I just want to say that I did something and I want to feel moderately snooty about it.

Does snootiness somehow align itself with being cultured? When I look online, it seems that cultured people do photo essays. Sure, pictures can say a thousand words, but I would argue that actually writing an essay is far more time-consuming, and well, just consuming. If you are reading this, and I mean really reading this — digesting the words on this page — then give yourself a pat on the back. Many people’s newsfeeds consist of insta-photos or short bits of prose that sound vaguely intellectual. I’m not here to say that you shouldn’t share insta-photos or vaguely intellectual tidbits, but I think if that’s all that we share, we may be killing culture as we’ve known it for centuries.

Maybe insta-life is life as we know it. But putting a filter on a photo — is that a technological hubris that separates us from true stories? Are words of the year, like “post-truth,” easy attempts to describe a reality that begs for more than a one-word answer? In a world of brief technological affairs, people need difficult stories.

I had an affair with Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina and I had an affair that lasted about nine months (okay, maybe eleven months). Once I got 450 pages into the book, I started to love it. I didn’t just love the story, but I liked that I had to learn how to love something. It takes effort, for me, a lazy twenty-something-year-old, to read 800 pages. I like that I didn’t give up on Anna and her story. I am glad that I continued through the dry bits to get have an experience that bordered on spiritual.

Beauty, according to Plato, is a component of the eternal. Long and tedious stories have shaped cultures for generations. Who knew that a dead Russian man from across an ocean would have an influence on me, more than a hundred years after the publication of his book? Stories like Anna Karenina have beauty. Not a cheap, one-sided beauty bought at H&M that will be faded by next week, but a beauty that presents truth even when it is uncomfortable. The barrage of short phrases and images that we experience via social media will likely be irrelevant, or cacophonous at best, for future generations, as social media does not speak to a broader sense of truth, a truth that passes the boundaries of time.

Perhaps the perpetuation of the stories that shape us will continue in human consciousness as something that we want to say we had read, like my friend deciding to read Dostoyevsky. In that case, may millennials sound all the snootier, so long as they are actually reading books. Beyond bragging rights, however, I hope readers encounter a deeper, richer sense of reality beyond this brief moment in time known as the present. Mystery exists in art that has lasted beyond a single generation. It may not be easy to understand, but there is a kind of beauty, some sort of deep magic in the old stories that beg to be read.

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