Crime and Punishment  Bookshelf.

Bloggers Karamazov (“The Official Blog of The North American Dostoevsky Society”) has an interview with Jeff Mezzocchi about his collection of books related to Crime and Punishment:

Rare book seller and high school teacher Jeff Mezzocchi has spent the past 10 years compiling a Crime and Punishment “bookshelf”—a collection of nineteenth-century works of philosophy, science, and fiction that form the novel’s intellectual backdrop. He has generously agreed to share his catalogue of first editions with our readers. You can access it here!

This week Greta Matzner-Gore sits down with Jeff to discuss his work. […]

GMG: You not only teach Crime and Punishment; you teach its intellectual context as well. In one of our email exchanges, for example, you mentioned that you discuss Feuerbach (!) with your students. What, in your opinion, is the most important philosophical background that students need in order to understand the novel? And how do you introduce this material to students who have little experience with philosophy? 

JM: By far, the most important philosophical background for students is understanding the ideas in Chernyshevsky’s works. I have my students read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for their summer assignment, and then as the year begins, we dive into excerpts from Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? I work with them on understanding some of the basics of philosophy: general distinctions in ontology (materialism and idealism), epistemology (rationalism and empiricism and, later, scientific rationalism), ethics (deontology and teleology). We read some excerpts from Plato’s Republic (the divided line and the allegory of the cave are particularly helpful to get a grasp on the language and distinctions between perspectives). This helps build a working vocabulary as we dig deeper into Chernyshevsky’s emphasis on positivism and rational egoism, his materialism, scientific rationalism, and utilitarianism. I actually have my students complete a project rooted in Chernyshevsky’s philosophy where they identify a problem in our world that creates suffering. Based on rational egoism, they must reshape public policy so that they eliminate the suffering, freeing people to pursue what is advantageous, allowing everyone to move towards happiness. Once they seem fully comfortable engaging with Chernyshevsky and his ideas, we pivot to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. It is a dense few months, but as we build through that sequence of texts, the students grow not only in their understanding but in their confidence. Class discussions become dynamic and engaging, and oftentimes I can sit back and just take notes on what my students say. 

GMG: About 10 years ago, you started collecting (mostly) first editions of nineteenth-century works of philosophy, science, and fiction that Dostoevsky knew well. What inspired you to embark on this new project? 

JM: Since I had been collecting and selling rare books in philosophy and teaching philosophy for a number of years already, I was noticing how much the publication history of books by thinkers like Nietzsche had such a profound impact on his ideas. I was realizing how narrow it was to isolate the thinker and writer from the context in which s/he lived. I suddenly began to see the books I read and taught in an entirely new light. As I shifted my own teaching a bit towards literature and the intersection of literature and philosophy, I became more and more interested in the texts behind those texts. I think I first noticed the footnote referencing Feuerbach in Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? when I was designing a class on 19th c. Russian Literature. I thought to myself, why not get a first edition copy? And I did. Subsequently, that same year as my students were reading Notes from Underground, I noticed more acutely the reference to Henry Thomas Buckle and his book History of Civilization in England. As the years went on, I kept digging into the footnotes of Crime and Punishment, reading and studying many of the books directly and indirectly referenced-–thinkers like Fourier and his Phalanstery, Quetelet’s statistical analysis of human behavior, even the brief mention of the specific translation of the Qur’an. I started to wonder what a bookshelf in Raskolnikov’s apartment might look like. So, I slowly started acquiring those books when I came across them. At a certain point I realized this could make for an interesting catalogue, if not for others, certainly for myself! In all honesty, I thought the idea was so quirky and niche, that no one except me would be interested in it. I have seen many rare book catalogues over the years, but never one that focused on a single novel. I almost talked myself out of it! But I am so glad I didn’t. I have been amazed by the response to my work, from both academics and booksellers alike! I tend to think of my bookselling and my teaching as separate vocations, but after this, I am wondering if maybe I can find more ways to let each inform the other. 

What a great idea! The only thing that keeps me from wishing I had taken the class is the requirement to read Chernyshevsky, but I guess when I was an adolescent I could have enjoyed it. And it’s a great pleasure to look through the linked catalog and see the books and descriptions.

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