A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders – I don’t remember when I last felt so grateful to a writer as I am to George Saunders for having written this book. In it, he throws open the doors to a class he’s taught for twenty years at Syracuse University on the nineteenth-century Russian short story.
Why read these stories? Because they unabashedly explore big questions. How should we live? What should we value? Is it okay to be happy when there’s so much suffering in the world? Those sorts of unanswerable questions the Russian writers nonetheless took a stab at answering, or at least delving into, thus producing stories that still speak to us so many years later.
The book begins deliciously as an exercise in slow reading, as Saunders feeds you a Chekhov story one page at a time, checking in with you after each page and guiding you toward developing an awareness of your own reading experience. Stop, Saunders says, what did you notice on that page? What did it make you wonder about? Okay, now read on and see how the author responds to your questions. Stories are conversations between author and reader, Saunders shows us, and his book is a conversation, too, not a lecture.
In the chapters that follow, Saunders gives us six more stories to read (by Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy), and then considers what makes each one tick. How does the author make us care enough to keep reading? Which details are included and which are left out? Whose perspective are we given and why does it matter? Here’s another approach the author might have taken—why didn’t he? By articulating so well what animates these stories and by sharing his sheer admiration for them, Saunders teaches us to love them better ourselves.
I think this feels like such a heightened reading experience because the habits of mind Saunders encourages me to cultivate as a reader—attentiveness, openness, inquisitiveness—make me feel that much more alive when I look up from the page. Even if only briefly, I feel more receptive to the world in front of me.
If you’re looking to intensify and deepen your reading experience, if you crave a reading buddy who is witty and brilliantly insightful yet appealingly modest—who never suggests his way of reading is the only way—this just might be your book.