By Tracey Napoli
The Business Building Lounge was full on Thursday, Sept. 20, as students gathered to hear Benjamin Rifkin, professor of World Languages and Cultures (Russian) and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and David Blake, professor and department chair of English, read and analyze excerpts from Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
The unity of these two books and professors in a single Close Reading event was brought about by their “Summer Reading Challenge,” which entailed Rifkin and Blake trading books for the summer — Rifkin gave Blake “Anna Karenina,” while Blake offered Rifkin “Moby Dick.” For the event, they both spoke about the books they had given the other.
Rifkin took the podium first to speak about “Anna Karenina.” He read the opening passage in Russian, while students followed along on English translations. He began his commentary by saying the first chapter of the book was “like an overture to a symphony,” alluding to the chords and notes that come together to make cohesive, beautiful music.
Rifkin went on to describe the familial ties of the characters in the book, as well as Tolstoy’s frequent use of foreshadowing and “superfluous detail” throughout the book. He spoke of the themes in “Anna Karenina,” such as “family is fate” and being unable to “impose our order on the world.” He concluded his portion with Tolstoy’s letters on “Anna Karenina,” where the author himself stated that he was “very proud of the novel’s architecture.”
Blake opened his reading of “Moby Dick” by disclosing that although he loved “Anna Karenina,” “Moby Dick” was his first love. After reading the first passage of the book, beginning with the famous line “Call me Ishmael” (which he confessed to having a bumper sticker of in his office), Blake compared “Moby Dick” to “Anna Karenina.” He explained that whereas Tolstoy begins with plot and characterization, Melville begins with voice and character as revealed by mood and language. Blake concluded by stating, “Melville takes the task of making this individual story everyone’s story.”
Aqeela Naqvi, junior English major, said, “I thought it was interesting to see their perspectives on it, and how they used the opening paragraphs in each book to relate it to what happens throughout the rest of the book.”
The session ended after a fairly lengthy question-and-answer period, where students and professors voiced their opinions and their misconceptions about the books. As they delved deeper into the layers of the first few paragraphs of each book, Blake’s initial statement that he and Rifkin were “two people with two very big books” was proven true — there was not enough time to realize just how big they were.