What It’s Like to Study One Book For a Whole Semester

“It is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially”

~Donna Tartt, The Secret History

I’m guilty of quoting this exact line in an earlier article. It seemed necessary, however, to unearth a second time, as it exemplifies my experience reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov over the course of this spring semester. Not to mention Donna Tartt herself was heavily influenced by the works of Dostoevsky. So who better to introduce my topic than a contemporary of one of Russia’s greatest novelists?

A colleague once joked with me that the further you travel in your college timeline the more absurdly specific the classes become. My minor in comparative literature has offered me an abundance of classes to select from with works originating across the globe. So as a new member of Boston University’s comparative literature department, the question arose- what part of the world’s literature did I wish to start with?

I had already completed several Hispanic literature classes for my major, so I knew I desired to study a completely different region of the world. And while Brothers Karamazov was definitely a surprising decision, it wasn’t arbitrary.

I had eyed the novel several times in Barnes and Noble, reading the plot summary and esteemed comments on the back cover. I slowly developed a nagging intrigue towards discovering what content the book contained, but refrained from purchasing it, believing the information too dense and abstract for my brain alone to comprehend. Incidentally, when the time arrived to register for class, I was browsing through various course descriptions and my hand slipped on the keyboard. An unintended course number was entered into the search bar, and the result that popped up on the screen was none other than an entire class devoted to the study of The Brothers Karamazov. I nabbed the final open seat in the class and thus entered the world of comparative literature, with Russia as my starting point.

I knew this class would be different from my high school English classes and previous reading-heavy university classes. No longer would I be cranking out a book within a week or two, only to be handed a fresh assignment. Now I would have time to assimilate myself into the text and pick apart details you can only find if you are given the time to look for them.

This brings us back to Donna Tartt’s quote. If you are passionate about literature, whether it is your area of study or not, I recommend taking a class centered on the exploration of a single book. There is something uncharacteristically enriching about the experience of becoming intimately acquainted with a novel.

For starters, I found that studying one book is grounding. While readings for my other classes came and went with each new week, Brothers Karamazov was a constant. It’s rare to find a hard-working college student immune to the anxiety and frenzy of the semester’s assignments. So sitting down to read the next portion of this novel became a weekly ritual that calmed my stress and channeled my attention. There was less sense of urgency to grind out the work and more need to meticulously analyze the text in search of buried truths. And since the book was spread out over the course of the semester, studying it cemented the impression that I was consistently moving forward, adding a new tier of knowledge to my already fruitful compilation.

Notably, classes that focus on a single book attract a unique student body. If you’re going to spend roughly four months diligently learning a famous work, it is likely every student in the classroom sincerely wants to be there. This doesn’t suggest students aren’t excited and committed to classes that follow a different format. But anyone who has ever truly loved a book understands the passion that accompanies writing and sharing personal thoughts with students possessing the same level of enthusiasm. The room becomes a focal point of synergy, with students eagerly working to build upon one another’s ideas and findings.

As mentioned earlier, I needed the discipline of a structured class in order to tackle Brothers Karamazov. My translated copy yielded nearly 800 pages of fascinating but, admittedly (at least in my case), challenging material. While student discussion and collaboration was an invaluable feature to the study of a novel, my ability to connect with such a deep text depended largely on the professor and his capacity to foster comprehension. After all, as college students, we are no stranger to the realization that a professor can make or break your experience in a class.

Illustration by William Sharp

Luckily, my professor was not merely good, he was phenomenal. And while it is natural for a student body to all possess varying, individual opinions of their teachers, I’ve never heard one complaint leveled towards the professor who spent an entire semester diligently exploring Dostoevsky with us. Could this be a fluke? Possibly. Yet I began wondering if perhaps the nature of the class was forced to afford us a fantastic teacher.

A novel as large and meticulously grafted as The Brothers Karamazov is meant to be studied slowly and tediously over the course of a semester. In order to commit to learning this novel, I had to treat my reading as a process, or rather, as a journey. The professor who elects to teach such a renowned book enters the classroom with the understanding that they are charged with guiding the team on their personal explorations. So while there is no mathematical equation for the production of a great teacher, it makes sense that the leader of this class has accumulated a skill-set necessary to captivate his students.

To teach only one book for four months, a professor must possess a degree of expertise to convey information, but also readiness to learn what the students themselves discover. They must remain focused enough to deliver the essential aspects of the text, but also willing to segway into side topics in the name of literary exploration. Beyond all, they must love the book they are teaching so as to pass their passion onto their students. Understandably, it is not guaranteed that every professor will meet these qualifications with every student they teach. But my professor undoubtedly added to the experience of studying Brothers Karamazov, and I was fortunate to learn from a dedicated expert.

The other night I was walking to dinner with a friend. It had been a few months since we had seen each other, and we were chatting about current classes as part of our nightly mission to reconnect. I mentioned my decision to take a class devoted entirely to reading Brothers Karamazov and she replied that it must be so exciting to read only one book for the whole semester. I couldn’t have agreed more.

If you love literature, do not pass up the opportunity to invest your time in studying a single novel. I cannot claim to be a Dostoevsky expert, but I am glad to admit I understand Brothers Karamazov far better than if I had attempted to tackle it by myself. If you decide to embark on a similar experience, I believe you will find Donna Tartt was not lying. It is truly rewarding to acquaint yourself intimately with a book.


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