My first recommendation is not to read books just because everybody else is reading them. Today’s bestsellers about dragon tattoos are likely to become tomorrow’s bargain-bin specials. C. S. Lewis once observed that it makes no more sense to focus on authors who happen to live in your own generation than it does to focus on authors who have the same hair color as you.
I would challenge more ambitious readers to go back and read the sections of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that they probably skipped over in school. Critics and anthologists usually focus on brother Ivan, the tormented atheist, with his parable of “The Grand Inquisitor.” But readers who only know that chapter severely misunderstand the novel, not to mention Dostoevsky in general. It is key to remember that the word Brothers in the title is plural: Readers must also follow the journeys of Dimitri, the redeemed sensualist, and Alyosha, the spiritual seeker. The most often quoted line from The Brothers Karamazov is from Ivan: “If there is no God, all things are permissible.” But you will get closer to the heart and soul of the novel if you also remember Father Zossima’s benediction to Alyosha: “May you bless life and cause others to bless it.”
— David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the author of, most recently, Looking for the King (Ignatius, 2010), a historical quest novel featuring C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings.