I don’t know how long it takes most people to read a book, but I’ve been trying to get through Anna Karenina for more than 30 years. During that time, I’ve read several other books—some of them more than once—but for some reason I just can’t get through this one.
I first set out to read Anna Karenina when I was ten years old after seeing the PBS adaptation listed among the late night options in the TV Guide. At the time I wasn’t allowed to stay up past nine o’clock, and even if I had been allowed out of bed, my dad would have commandeered our family’s only TV in order to watch the news and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on WCCO, so I didn’t know what I was missing. I only knew that the title intrigued me, and that I wanted find it.
To my chagrin, the book was not available in my school library. I like to believe I could have found it at the public library, but as we did not live in town and, more importantly, the library wasn’t exactly a hot spot for the other members of my immediate family, my dream of finding it there would go unrealized.
Flash forward to 1983 and Rushford High School where, after years of required reading, I found myself in charge of my own literary preferences, and decided again to tackle a few of the classics. Sadly, I was unable to find a copy of Anna Karenina, and thus had to settle for the likes of Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Austen, and Buck. And so my thirst for reading the epic tale remained unquenched.
Not that I had any more of a clue as to what I was missing even then. I still knew next to nothing about Anna Karenina apart from the fact that it was written by Leo Tolstoy, and that it was a very important novel. The part about the author came to me courtesy of my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Julsrud, who encouraged me to read the classics on the grounds that it would make me a better author. The part about it being an important novel came to me the moment I discovered it on PBS.
As far as I was concerned, its presence on the PBS lineup proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the book was worth my time. These were the same people responsible for Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Upstairs Downstairs, after all. And while I never got to see Upstairs Downstairs either, owing to the fact that it, too, was on PBS when I was supposed to be sleeping, the fact that they aired both it and Anna Karenina told me I needed to read it before I died.
Flash forward again, to 2011 and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where, after years of cooking, cleaning, working, coaching youth sports, and raising kids I found myself simultaneously recovering from surgery and in possession of a Kindle. So, after reading Sissy Spacek’s My Extraordinary Ordinary Life and Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid—both of which I highly recommend—I purchased my very own virtual copy of Anna Karenina!
I would love to tell you I finished it—that I devoured it in twelve hours flat, and that my life was changed forever by it. But no. Not even close.
Because that thing is LONG. And it has a thousand characters, each of whom goes by at LEAST two—if not three—different names. And it’s been translated from Russian by someone who was either drinking at the time, or had once used a lot of drugs.
Maybe I need to drink more or ask my doctor for a prescription. I don’t know. What I do know is that since acquiring the elusive novel, I have tried to read it four different times. Each time I start it, I get a little further than I did the last; but that’s not saying much since, even after my fourth attempt, Anna and Vronsky have yet to consummate their love.
And then along came the movie starring Jude Law and Kiera Knightly, which I refuse to see until I’ve finished the book—yes, I’m one of THOSE people.
Maybe one of these days I’ll sit down with a case of Moscato and finally get around to finishing it. But if the four-inch stack of magazines and the seventeen books I plan to either read or write are any indication, it’s going to be another 30 years before I find out what happens to Anna.