Happy Birthday Anton Chekhov

One is brought to the conclusion that Chekhov, whose family had been serfs till the Emancipation and who knew the life of the lower classes, is here contradicting deliberately the Tolstoyan idealization and the Turgenevian idylizing of the peasantry, as, in his stories about religion, he is confronting Dostoevsky’s saints with something more degraded or prosaic. It is a picture, in general, of a feudal society attempting to modernize itself, but still in a state of transition that is considerably less than half-baked. One of the strongest impressions, in fact, conveyed by the whole of Chekov’s works is that, although the old order is petering out, there is not very much to build on for a sound democratic and up-to-date Russia. And yet there is just barely a note of hope.

—Edmund Wilson on Anton Chekhov, in his introduction to his selection of Chekhov’s later short stories, Peasants and Other Stories, which, incidentally, was the first book ever published by NYRB Classics. 

My Ideal Bookshelf

Holiday shopping late last year our eyes were caught by the cover of My Ideal Bookshelf. It’s a collection of book selections by over one hundred cultural figures, the books that matter most to them, edited by Thessaly La Force and with beautifully painted spines by Jane Mount. Of course our automatic response was to see which NYRB titles made the grade, and after going through the entire book we can present our findings to you, dear reader:

Hilton Als chose Peasants and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov: “I began to see that was creating a universe out of cloth. He was creating stories about his society, Russia, in miniature. He wasn’t doing these big Tolstoyan numbers. He was building brick by brick.”

Rosanne Cash chose Here is New York by E. B. White (from the Little Bookroom imprint).

Tobias Frere-Jones chose Ounce Dice Trice by Alastair Reid and Ben Shan.

Daniel Handler chose The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati: “The voice is erudite but useless. It’s supposed to be omniscient but it doesn’t know everything. It worries. It’s philosophically digressive.”

Maira Kalman chose Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser.

George Saunders chose Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.

Wells Tower chose The Book of Ebenezer le Page by G. E. Edwards and The 13 Clocks by James Thurber.

Vendela Vida chose Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick.

Alice Waters chose A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David (in a collection) and The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka.