Alexander Solzhenitsyn died today; so says the news.
In the mid-1970s, Solzhenitsyn was in the news a lot, enough so that even I, a self-absorbed, pretentious-as-anything high schooler heard about him, and being pretentious, I bought myself a paperback copy of The Gulag Archipelago (the work that was most in the news at the time), in several volumes, and struggled through it. I remember having to constantly try to figure out what the heck the footnotes were about, looking people up in the dictionary and being really confused. It was the first book I ever read that shocked me into realizing that I hadn't read anything, that I had no clue about the literature he talked about as if everyone knew it by heart, that I didn't understand even the basics of anything.
And then I read Cancer Ward, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which were (of course, being novels) a whole lot easier. From there, in what I laughingly call my "depressive Russian lit period," I started reading some of the books Solzhenitsyn assumed I'd read, assumed we'd all read: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, with a bit of Gogol for extra confusion. I struggled through them; I'm sure I didn't get much out of reading them, but I got the basics, and thought lots about them. Those were the books I was reading when I wasn't reading the assignments for high school English (and consequently doing lots worse in class than I should have).
The experience of reading on my own, and never really having the sorts of things I was thinking about discussed in my English class in high school probably made me think that classes discussing literature wouldn't do much for me, and so I never took an English class in college.
But then, when I went off to college, I made friends with a woman who'd actually studied Russian lit/language, and really knew the books in ways that made my head spin. She was the first person I knew who really talked about literature with me, who took me seriously as a reader, and who expected me to think hard about what I was reading.
So, in a way, I have to thank Solzhenitsyn for teaching me that there was a lot more to reading than horse books, that there was a sort of incredible conversation between writers and readers, and that to even understand that conversation, I needed to read books that were difficult and complex enough to make me think about life and death, ethics and murder, faith and doubt.
Funny how things work out, isn't it?