(L to R) deBotton and Dostoyevsky (L to R) deBotton and Dostoyevsky

Lessons from Literary Introverts

Sunday, 24 December 2023 08:41

by Suzanne Moore, Wilkes County Librarian

The latest *Reading Trap authors to celebrate birthdays are Fyodor Dostoyevsky (b. Nov 11, 1821) and Alain de Botton (b Dec 20, 1969).  Both authors are renowned for their philosophical works, and their books were recently selected for discussion. The reflections about their works are uniquely connected, and they offer an insightful perspective on various philosophical themes that are worth exploring.

Notes from the Underground is a novel by Dostoevsky that follows the story of an unnamed protagonist who lives in poverty in a basement. The story is heavy on psychology and philosophy and is one of the earliest existential novels. The character, who is 40 years old, reflects on his youthful years when he was 24. He is an educated man and a loner, with views that may seem extreme and vengeful. However, his hypersensitivity elicits feelings of sympathy at times. Dostoevsky uses written notes to describe his thoughts and feelings that range from one end of the spectrum to the other. The notes could be seen as a therapeutic way for the character to analyze his contrary emotions and help reveal his predicament. Readers should digest the information slowly and ultimately be able to relate to the truth and goodness hidden in the troubles of our world.

As I learned about the background of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky I was amazed at the hardships of his own life.  He belonged to a literary group that was persecuted for talking about banned books.  Books that criticized the Tsar of Russia.  He nearly lost his life to a firing squad for this so-called traitorous behavior.  Thankfully his life was spared when his sentence was commuted at the last minute.  His punishment was changed to four years of exile in a Siberian prison camp and then he was forced into six years of military service.  Dostoyevsky’s character in his famous novel Crime and Punishment lives through similar experiences.  Over the years, Dostoyevsky has become a highly regarded Russian author and many of his works have been made into films.

Alain de Botton, a British author, explores Marcel Proust's written works in his book "How Proust Can Change Your Life." Before delving into de Botton's reflections, it's important to understand the association between the two. Although not explicitly stated, I noticed a connection to Dostoyevsky while reading both books back-to-back. Proust, the real-life figure in de Botton's book, is remarkably similar to Dostoyevsky's fictional underground character. Let me begin with Proust's famous book In Search of Lost Time. Proust wrote this massive tome during the last three years of his life while he remained secluded in his room, sleeping by day and writing at night. The idea that he was trying to recover and relive lost years in the fictionalized version of his life events reminded me of the man in Dostoyevsky's underground.   Like this man, Proust also exhibits extreme tendencies. His book spans over a million words and examines the minutest details of his life, yet it offers universal emotions that resonate with readers. De Botton's analysis of Proust's writings is highly valuable in promoting the understanding and appreciation of his works.  One insight that both Proust and the ‘notetaker’ seem to live by is, “Learn from suffering, relish the insight it offers, use it to grow.”

I was amazed by how de Botton, Proust, and Dostoyevsky, despite being from different periods and geographic locations, could offer such profound insights into the human experience, highlighting our shared commonalities.

Alain de Botton explores the relevance of philosophy in modern-day life in his books by discussing various contemporary topics. Readers may find it intriguing to learn about ways of integrating love and happiness into their lives, something that is much needed in the world today.


*The Reading Trap is an open group that meets monthly at Traphill Branch Library to discuss books recommended as "must-reads."  Books are chosen to celebrate birthdays of their authors and the discussions are always thought-provoking.  The group meets every second Thursday at noon.  Join us on January 11 to celebrate Japanese author, Yukio Mishima's birthday and conversation about his book The Sound of Waves.  A complimentrary film program, "Keeping it Reel"  takes place at Two Rivers Cinema every month on the first Saturday at 1:00 p.m.   Join us for a a free showing of Mishima a life in four chapters on Janurary 6, 2024.