For two days I’ve been finding reasons to avoid starting to read the first story in my Chekhov anthology. First, I finished my “warm-up reading” – the stories in Best American Short Stories 2010 and You Know When the Men Are Gone.
Then I edged a little closer: I pulled out my Smirnitsky – a 50,000-word Russian-English dictionary that the college Russian department considered definitive when I was an undergraduate. The book was expensive (something like $40), and I was a scholarship student, so I’d been reading for my Russian literature seminars with the help of a marginally adequate paperback Russian-English/English-Russian dictionary with maybe 20,000 entries. For my twentieth birthday, two friends bought a copy of Smirnitsky for me. It’s a thing of beauty: hardback, covered in fine red cloth, three columns per page, gender annotations and irregular declensions for the nouns, conjugation notes for the verbs, colloquial usages that include those evil Russian prepositions that are so rarely analogous to their English counterparts and that can trip up a non-native speaker trying to read a Russian text. (An example of the preposition challenge is the verb igrat’/cygrat’ – to play. Igrat’ na royalye is to play a piano; igrat’ v futbol is to play soccer. Igrat’ na dengii is to play for money, while igrat’ po bolshoi is to play for high stakes. And that’s one of the simpler examples.)
About a month after my friends gave me the dictionary, I had become so familiar with it that I could open it left-handed (I’m right-handed) to within a few pages of the word I was seeking. It had a nice, flexible spine and would lay open and flat on my desk while I copied the English translation into the margin of my reading assignment.
Now it’s quite worn: the binding, once a bright communist red, has faded to a more socialist pink and has frayed around the edges, exposing the cardboard binding. The gold-tooled title on the spine is nearly worn away. At some point, perhaps when the book was crated for one of a dozen relocations, the upper edge got damp. The pages, of high-quality paper which has barely begun to yellow, are a bit warped at the top edge and want to stick together as if they were still uncut. I’ll have to be more careful opening the dictionary left-handed now. Still, the book is an old friend and it felt good to have Smirnitsky back on my desk.
That wasn’t quite enough. I needed to tidy up the office a little. Oh, look! A copy of How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight from his Own Letters and Work (eds. Piero Brunello & Lena Lencek) on my shelf of writing books. Best pull that out, there might be something useful in there. From a shelf in the basement, Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov. That one has a big section on Chekhov. So I piled those up on the desk with Smirnitsky. That looked even better.
Then I had to drop off some books at the library, so while I was there I picked up WordPress for Dummies and Blogging for Dummies. Promised myself I’d just thumb through them at bedtime. Right.
It seemed important to become a little more organized before diving into the heart of such a big project as a year of reading short stories, so I dug out a notebook of “keeper” short stories and poems clipped from magazines and filed a few that were still loose. Two short stories I read in April made it into the notebook: Mark Wagstaff’s “Footnotes and Footlights,” winner of The Writer‘s 2010 Short-Story Contest, and Ramona Ausubel’s “Atria.” I learned from an interview with Ausubel published on “The Book Bench,” one of The New Yorker‘s blogs, that her story collection A Guide to Being Born will be published in 2012. I’ll look forward to reading it.
Then it was time for a break. I surfed a few blogs and learned that May is Short Story Month. That seemed like a good omen for starting my project in earnest, but reading other blogs was so much fun that I couldn’t stop right away. I found Charles E. May’s five blog posts entitled “Authors on the Short Story”, one of which summarized some of the commentary from the editors of the Best American Short Stories series. I’d been planning to do something similar on my own, so I decided that printing those posts out and reading them would save me some note-taking time. Nope. My printer doesn’t like blogs, and a post that should have printed on two pages ended up costing me 22 sheets of paper. I decided to file them with the Jonathan Franzen essay on Robinson Crusoe, which meant finding another binder and the box of sheet protectors, and making a note to pick up a page-cutter thingey the next time I stop at Office Depot.
Now it’s time to shower and go see my first-grade math group.
I guess I’ll start on Chekhov tomorrow.