Monday, April 2, 2012

Point, Prokhorov

Dear Mr. Prokhorov,

One of the funniest people on Twitter, in my opinion, is the fake version of you. Fake Prokhorov came to my attention before the season started, when the Nets (and the Rockets) were briefly accused of tampering for holding secret meetings with Dwight Howard. Chris Broussard posted a message that said, "Howard met with NJ owner Mikhail Prokhorov Thurs night in Miami, sources say," and the fake version of you responded by saying, "Who are sources? They pay ultimate price." Me and one of my buddies got a real kick out of that for a few days, "pay ultimate price." A few other great Fake Prokhorov moments, chosen at random: "This World Peace seem like very dangerous thing." "I very much like this Mitt Romney. I am also repulse by poor people." "In USA, Kevin Garnett is consider to be jerk that choke and annoy opponent. In Russia, he is man of respect." "I must admit new photo of Jay-Z baby is frighten me. I have never seen baby before." And more recently: "Baseball team price of two billion USA dollar is not impress. I have boat worth this much." I haven't even included any of Fake Prokhorov's comments about Chris Bosh, which may be the highlight of the whole enterprise, but which I've deemed too cruel to include here. Point is, you became a hilarious fictional character to me, and your decision to run for president of Russia only added to the fun. Then, about a month ago, a few weeks before you lost the election, the New Yorker published an article on you called "The Master and Mikhail." When I turned to the beginning of the article, I wasn't disappointed at all. Underneath your picture, the caption featured one of your quotes from the article: "I am a boa constrictor...Calm, good mood." You can't imagine how happy I was to see that quote. You, the real Prokhorov, were apparently just like the Fake Prokhorov, except even funnier. So I start reading the article and find out that your first business, an extremely profitable one, was "an operation for stonewashing jeans." I loved this, too, of course, and expected much more of the same. But instead, I came across another quote from you, and this one gave me pause, Mikhail.

Here's what you said: "I just don’t like literature, because all of the experiences in it are redundant to me...Literature I just don’t get at all. I’ve come to the conclusion that if someone has real-life experience, then he can’t, by definition, like literature." I didn't expect you to say anything that would cut me to the core and make me reflect upon one of my weaknesses as a human being, but there you go. I've come to the conclusion that if someone has real-life experience, then he can't, by definition, like literature. The smile dropped right off my face when I read that. Your implication, of course, is that the opposite is also true: the less real-life experience one has, the more one likes literature. A troubling thought for a guy like me, who definitely likes literature. Now I've always felt strongly that reading should be a supplement to life, and that life shouldn't be a supplement to reading. Good books, I've always felt, help us pay more attention to real life, not less. But I'd noticed on occasion that sometimes books can have the opposite effect. There have been many times in my life, for instance, when I would've rather read about riding a horse than actually ride a horse. Or times when an actual horse may have been galloping by me and I didn't see it because I was reading about a horse. Neither of these are good, Mikhail, not at all. I know that. (I'm not saying I only read about horses, by the way. That's just an example. Although many of my all-time favorite books--True Grit, Anna Karenina, All the Pretty Horses--do feature horses. Many of my other favorites do not, however.) Now, thanks to you, I worried that maybe reading is always just a way to bury one's head in the sand, no matter how we might rationalize it otherwise. And since I teach English and assign literature all the time, what does this say about the way I've spent my time over the years? It'd be like if you suddenly found out that stonewashing jeans was a meaningless act.

So for weeks I thought about what you said, wrestling with it, trying to figure out where I stand on your comments and act accordingly. And to help me consider this troubling question, I finally turned to a place I often turn in such situations: literature. I don't know what that says about me or literature, that I use literature to decide if I should stop reading literature, but there you go. In this case, I consulted two great Americans, one the former handyman of the other, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I could've turned to the Russian writers, your country's greatest export in my opinion, but I didn't. When I thought about your quote, Thoreau and Emerson came to mind because both wrote about reading and because both, like you, greatly valued real life experiences. So what do they have to say? Well, in many ways they agree with you, Mikhail. In the chapter on "Reading" in Walden, Thoreau talks about how little he read while he was in his shack and says, "I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived." Point, Prokhorov. Why should I spend so much time reading about other places when I could be exploring the place where I live? You guys are right. I really want to do better about that in the future. And Emerson, too, was on your side, at times. In "The American Scholar," he emphasizes the importance of action, of getting out in the world: "I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake." Another point for Prokhorov. In fact, this quote cut me to the core almost as much as yours. How many times have I avoided real life experiences either because I wanted to sleep or because of my nerves? Way too many, Mikhail. Way too many.

But here's where these guys differ from you: even though they think that real life should never be ignored, they also find great value in books. Whereas the New Yorker says you read "mostly 'specialized literature,' like books on chess tactics," these guys think it's important to read books that deal with the essential questions of existence, books that are--to use the words of your countryman Vladimir Nabokov about your countryman Leo Tolstoy--"eternally preoccupied with issues of importance to all mankind at all times." And no matter what you say, I still think this is necessary. It's nice to be able to read an essay or a novel and to identify deeply with it. As Emerson says, "There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said." Or as he says elsewhere, "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." (Isn't that nice, Mikhail, that last phrase?) Maybe you don't need it, but I still need to read books that make me feel that way. Not to mention books that deal with those big questions, the kind that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov spent their Russian lives examining. You of all people should know that. As Thoreau says, "The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life." I know you own twenty Jet Skis, and that's great--Jet Skiing is often a fuller experience than reading--but at some point, Mikhail, you may find yourself without access to your Jet Skis, or you may even have questions that water sports won't address. Should this occur, you might consider consulting the thoughts of your great departed countrymen.

In the end, I've decided that from now on I'll try to stick as closely as I can to a statement Emerson makes, which provides a nice balance between the two points of view: "Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings." In other words, from now on, if I have a chance to ride a horse or see a horse, I need to take it. Books are only for those moments when there are no horses or other experiences available. That's where you're right and where I need to change. But when those idle times come, Mikhail, and there's nothing doing, I'm going to continue to use books to help me recognize my rejected thoughts and the questions that disturb and puzzle and confound me. I'm glad literature exists. All the experiences in it are not redundant to me.



P.S. Where do you stand on the Internet, TV, and video games? If one has real life experience, should one like these? Which reminds me, I was traveling this weekend and I passed by a motel on a river, with a sign out front that said the following:


What do you think about that? I want to be the kind of person who is much more excited about the first part of that sign than the second, the kind of guy who doesn't let the latter distract me from the former. Rarely do I feel like I just wasted a few hours of my time on earth after I've read a book, but I feel that way all the time after I've been flipping channels or surfing the web. That must mean something. And hopefully you're not feeling that way right now as you read this, Mikhail.

P.P.S. I haven't even mentioned delight. For some people, myself included, experiencing the work of a truly great writer isn't all that different from the delight and awe that comes from watching a great basketball player. Reading late-period Cormac McCarthy isn't all that different from experiencing late-period MJ. Bird and Magic bear certain similarities to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And reading Barry Hannah's best work is like watching a hybrid of Dennis Rodman and Pistol Pete.