I was kidding, of course, when I said I’d have a story about my schoolyard origins as a literary critic-at least I thought I was. I was definitely kidding about the use of the words literary critic, because I am a book reviewer, not a literary critic.
But then it occurred to me that I do have one story about me and Dostoyevsky and grade school. This is not going to be a confessional blog, but I think part of the appeal of blogs is that they’ll reveal something human and embarrassing about the authors, so I’m just going to go ahead and get it over with now, before anyone is reading.
Also, it’s germane to the subject of book reviewing.
When I was pretty young, fifth grade I think, I decided that I wanted to impress everyone by reading a really tough book. My father was an English teacher, and taught some pretty hairy stuff to his students, so I marched up to his shelf and yanked off one of the hairiest books I could find: Crime and Punishment.
I spent the next few months “reading” it. I use ironic quotes because, at that age, I could understand most of the words, but the real meaning completely eluded me. Still, I managed to quite casually drop the fact that I was “reading” Crime and Punishment into a number of conversations. My friends shrugged, adults nodded politely, and, eventually, my brother pointed out that the author’s name was not in fact pronounced “Dotsky-evsky.”
I finished the book but that was the end of my bragging…for a while. I think secretly I still felt I had accomplished something, and even into college I managed to delude myself into thinking that I had in fact been an amazingly precocious reader-my gaffe had been just a small matter of pronunciation.
At some party in college, plastic cup of foamy keg beer in hand, I mentioned casually to some woman that I had read Crime and Punishment was back in fifth grade.
She was an incredibly generous person. Instead of outing me as a horrible braggart, she smiled and said, “That’s so sweet. Of course you can’t understand it at that age.” And I shook my head, smiling sagely at my youthful self, and said, “No, of course not.”
She let me off the hook, allowing me to pretend I’d been telling a funny story about what a show-off kid I was, instead of forcing me to confront the truth, which was that I was still trying to get mileage out of it.
So I never again bragged that I had read Dostoyevsky in the fifth grade. Until now.
Coming tomorrow: The failed schoolyard literary critic explains why this story is germane to the topic of being a book reviewer-cum-blogger, and finally reveals the great purpose of his blog.