Books That Shaped Our Lives

Ryan Schellenberg, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

It was in the spring of my freshman year in college that I picked up a copy of Notes from Underground at the Saskatoon Public Library. A friend had recommended The Brothers Karamazov, but of course I didn't have time to read that during the semester. So when I noticed the slim, hardbound volume on the shelf, it became my introduction to Dostoevsky.

One of the things I remember most vividly about that book was its smell. When I got home and opened to its first memorable lines, my dorm room was filled with the pungent scent of pipe tobacco—and I was transported out of my provincial town and into a dingy little flat in old Europe, where some Kafka sat smoking and reading, reading and smoking. ("There is no frigate like a book . . .") Yes, I imagined, whoever read this book last must have been some brilliant literary émigré, now lost in Saskatonian obscurity. I was in the company of great minds.

A few things have remained with me about the text itself. I was captured immediately by its acid but compelling wit, which allows Dostoevsky to revel in the weaknesses and humiliations of his narrator without ever evoking anything so straightforward as pity. We are constantly reminded, after all, that this unhappy man is far cleverer than we are. And so, despite its reputation for being dark, it’s hard to read this book without smiling.

I also remember resonating immediately with the Underground Man’s distrust of certainty, his raging against the "crystal palace" of modern rationalism. He is a man both too clever and too proud to take partial truths as whole ones—and I still admire him for that. In particular, he unmasks any account of so-called human nature that imagines itself to account for the fullness of human nature.

But what is most enduring about the experience of reading Notes from Underground was the strange sense I had of simultaneously being more and less alone than I had been in a long time. In other words, Notes from Underground was like every other good book, only more so: It brought me deeply inside myself precisely by putting me in touch with someone else entirely.