Learning From Failure

Toward the end of the recent British Open golf tournament (referred to, simply, as “The Open”), Rickie Fowler was chasing Rory McIlroy and actually tied him on the 12th hole during the third round. Later that round, he stumbled a bit, got a couple of bogies while Rory was getting two eagles on the last three holes to finish 6 shots ahead of his closest competitor. Rickie was later interviewed and he was confident that he could play better on the last day of the tournament and had a good chance of winning (which he nearly did).  He had played well to that point and he thought he knew what had gone wrong during those last few holes. He could learn from his mistakes and correct them and would do better, he was sure.

What a novel idea! To think that a person could learn from his mistakes! So many educators who are on the “self-esteem” bandwagon hell-bent to destroy their students’ ability to succeed in a complex world should take note. Failure is not, in itself, a bad thing. It can make us stronger. It’s what we make of it that is important. If the child never learns to fail, pick himself up, dust himself off, and try again he will never be a success in the “real” world. Fowler did just that. In the final round he played beautifully and gave McIlroy a merry chase, losing by only two strokes, thereby assuring himself a coveted place on the Ryder Cup team.

It’s ironic that it is in sports that these lessons can still be learned, not in the classroom where failure is generally regarded as an inherently bad thing. But, again, there are those who would not have the kids keep score in sports so they never fail there either. In a word, there are those among us, parents, coaches, and teachers, who live in a fantasy world where no one fails and everyone feels good about himself regardless of whether those feelings are well-deserved. And those parents, coaches, and teachers think they are preparing the kids to be a success in later life, whereas the opposite is the case. They are preparing those kids to be failures because they will never have failed before and will not have any idea how to deal with it when it comes. And that failure will come, eventually at some point in some form or other, is a certainty.

Steinbeck’s Wisdom

John Steinbeck apparently believed that there is some good in all of us — no matter how degenerate we appear. He was fond of writing about the scraps and bits of cast-off humanity that others ignored. In Cannery Row, for example, he writes about a small community of people who are likely to be unnoticed and dismissed as beneath contempt, if not avoided at all costs. The main group of five men, led by Mack, are “bums” in the eyes of most of us. They don’t work unless absolutely necessary — and then only as long as they must. They live with their dog they love too much to train or restrict in any way in a deserted warehouse, called the “Palace Flophouse,” owned by a Chinese man who has decided he is better off letting them live there rent-free than to turn them away and possibly suffer unseen consequences. The only “respectable” character, and the central character in the novella is “Doc,” an educated marine biologist who collects specimens along the California coast, prepares them for dissection and study in America’s colleges and universities, and lives a quiet and sober life among his jars, his books, and his beloved records (remember them??)

Midway through the novella a bizarre incident occurs in which Mack and his boys drunkenly trash Doc’s laboratory and home in their well-meaning desire to throw him a party because he has been good to them; Doc is indeed beloved by all in Cannery Row because he is gentle, caring, and only too willing to put himself out for others. Mack and the boys (“I and the boys,” as he says) feel awful about what their excess of enthusiasm has brought to Doc’s doors — it takes Doc, who arrives after the party is over, a day to clean up the mess they have left behind. Accordingly there is a rift between Doc and Mack’s crew, but it is one they are determined to mend — by throwing him another party (at the suggestion of the madam of the local whore house)! In the meantime, as they go about planning the party in secret, Doc is having a beer with one of his friends and reflecting on Mack and his boys “the Virtues, the Beatitudes, the Beauties,” as Steinbeck calls them; Doc comes up with the following speech which strikes me as worldly-wise:

“Doc said, ‘Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think,’ he went on, ‘that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will ever happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls. But Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. . . .

“‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness, and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.’”

Can I hear an “AMEN”!!??

Priorities

There was an interesting take on the aftermath of the recent World Cup games in Brazil. The author nicely balances the pros and cons and leaves it to the reader to balance the two. For me, the cons greatly outweigh the pros: it is not just the USA that has its priorities skewed; the entire world seems to — as the article makes clear.

In the end, soccer’s governing body got everything it wanted – beautiful new stadiums, surprisingly efficient transportation, high-scoring matches, record TV ratings and a perpetual stream of images of fans having the time of their lives plastered all over social media. An even more significant victory was the muting of the protests that overshadowed last year’s Confederations Cup. They were nowhere to be seen, at least not within view of the international media’s cameras, as the focus remained squarely on the football much to the delight of FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Brazil president Dilma Rousseff.

But after traveling around the country and seeing the situation up close, it was clear that the outspoken proponents of improved services and functioning infrastructure were the biggest losers. Whether it was roads in desperate need of maintenance outside Natal or the abject poverty not far from Arena de Sao Paulo, you could understand why people here would gather and scream at the top of their lungs about $500 million spent on Maracana’s second renovation in seven years or the $300 million used to build a world-class soccer stadium in Manaus, an Amazonian jungle city with no top-tier soccer team and little use for a 40,000-seat venue requiring millions more to maintain.

Seriously?? A 40,000 seat venue in the middle of the jungle while thousands nearby cannot put food on their plates? Isn’t this a bit like fiddling while Rome burns??

Machiavelli and Steinbeck On Parenting

Machiavelli gives the following advice to prospective Princes:

“From this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

I was reminded of this passage when reading John Steinbeck’s remarkable story “The Red Pony” in which he describes the complex relationship between the little boy, Jody, and his father whom he both fears and loves. Steinbeck has this interesting passage in the story:

“When the wood-box was full, Jody took the twenty-two rifle up to the cold spring at the brush line. He drank again and then aimed the gun at all manner of things, at rocks, at birds on the wing, at the big black pig kettle under the cypress tree, but he didn’t shoot for he had no cartridges and wouldn’t have until he was twelve. If his father had seen him aim the rifle in the direction of the house, he would have put off the cartridges off for another year. Jody remembered this and did not point the rifle down the hill again. Two years were enough to wait for cartridges. Nearly all of his father’s presents were given with reservations which hampered their value somewhat. It was good discipline.”

Several things jump out of these passages. To begin with, the notion that discipline might be a good thing, that a young boy might have to wait a couple of years to get what he wanted, is a dated concept — Steinbeck wrote this story in the early 1930s. But what intrigued me most was the ability of Jody’s father to “instill” both love and fear in the young boy, the very thing Machiavelli says is difficult for the Prince to do. But it is a key to good parenting, I would think. A child should respect, love and even fear the parent a bit. I am not talking about child abuse here — while Jody’s father is a bit stern, there’s no suggestion that he beats his son — I simply mean that a twinge of fear in the child that comes from the conviction that he or she knows the parents mean what they say. Jody knows his father will not give him the cartridges if he sees  him pointing the rifle at the house.  Moreover, the need to demand that Jody postpone immediate gratification, only “hampers” the value of the gift in the ten-year-old boy’s mind; in fact delayed satisfaction, increases value — the satisfaction that comes from a long-awaited gift (even if it is given with “reservations”) — all of which seem to go into the difficult (Freud says “impossible”) job of parenting.

We have lost a great deal in trashing the concept of “discipline,” insisting in all cases that it amounts to disguised abuse, and giving in to the notion that good parenting means complying with the child’s every whim. These bogus notions came from the plethora of pop-psychology books that were all the rage in the 1950s that sought to tell parents how to raise their children. This was the outcome, in turn, of a movement that started in the 1900s when the “helping professions” regarding themselves as “doctors of a sick society” decided that most of the problems with criminals in this country resulted from bad parenting and the job should be taken over by trained professionals like themselves.

This, of course, was nothing more than self-promotion on the part of educators, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and penologists. To state the case as plainly as possible, the  parents are the ones who should raise their children. The child simply needs to know the meaning of the word “no,” and he or she needs to know the parents mean what they say and that whatever else might happen, they love their child and want what is best for them. All of this comes from that difficult balance of love and fear that comprise the core of respect that should be at the center of any relationship between a child and his father or mother.  Steinbeck knew this, and his story about the red pony (which is really about Jody) gives us a convincing portrait of a child who both respects and loves his father — and fears him in the sense described above.

Conundrum

Given my relentless need to understand the peculiar, it has always struck me as remarkable that ordinary folks who complain about taxes and rail about the cost of living will agree to school referendums that raise those taxes and make it harder to get along in order to build another school, increase the size of the present school building, support the expensive sports programs, or (as recently happened in St. Paul, Minnesota) provide $9 million a year to assure the kiddies the latest electronic toys. Our little town of slightly over 1200 tight-fisted people (which shows no sign of growing) also recently passed a referendum to add on to the practically new school building — including (of course) a third gymnasium. The whole thing defies logic. So I have come up with three possible explanations and will toss them out there and see which one strikes the reader as the most plausible — unless there is a fourth I haven’t thought of yet.

1. Despite the fact that they complain about the failure of the schools, parents don’t really want their kids to learn about their world. They complain when their kids have to do homework.  They think the teachers are under-worked and overpaid and have little or no sympathy for them when they demand higher salaries. They want cheap baby-sitters who will take the kids off their hands for most of the day — as long as possible. Thus, they fight for the sports programs and scream like wounded banshees when anyone talks about cuts in those programs. The sports programs give the parents pride and it also keeps the kids occupied, off their hands, and out of trouble after school. And newer and bigger buildings are something they can point to with pride: they make the parents feel good about themselves, as if they are making some sort of real contribution to education. Or…

2. Parents feel guilty because they see so little of their kids and want to make it up to them by supporting school referendums that build larger and more impressive buildings or the latest teaching fad. They get vicarious pleasure out of the successes of their kids on the playing fields and are convinced that sports teach the kids important “life-lessons” (which they are too busy to teach themselves). It makes them feel good about themselves and convinced that they are supporting the schools. Or…

3. As good, practical Americans, parents believe only in those things they can see and touch — or can be quantified. Sports are highly visible and have scads of figures for them to play with and buildings can be seen and boasted about. “Our town went to State last year and has the newest and largest school with all the latest advances in technical know-how.” Technology rocks — it’s what’s out there and proves to us all that our kids are getting the latest and best available tools to lead them to success — which is to say a high-paying job after they graduate. “Everyone knows that electronics are the newest and latest thing and must therefore be an invaluable educational tool. But teachers? Give me a break. They work short hours and are already paid way too much for the easy jobs they have. Don’t talk to me about raising their salaries.” For the practical, down-to-earth parents teaching is way too ephemeral and they simply don’t understand why paying teachers a living wage would draw better people into teaching and raise the educational level of the schools far faster than the biggest school building or the latest electronic toy. But successful sports programs are highly visible, as are the shiny new buildings and playgrounds. It’s all about the tangible.

Needless to say, I prefer the third explanation. What do you think? It is truly a puzzler. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three explanations?

Making Widgets

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to make distinctions in order to be clear about the things we discuss. One of the distinctions I mentioned is that between “wants” and “needs.” We rarely make the distinction and that leads to major confusion, especially when forming policies or selling goods. We insist, for example, that people need the product they are buying when, in fact, they may simply want the product. One of the things marketing people are very good at doing is creating wants and they do this by insisting that those wants are needs. (Do we really need a 5 hour energy drink??)

Surprisingly, educators do the same thing. They talk about what the kids need when they are really talking about what the kids want. It’s easier to determine wants than needs, because we can simply ask the kids: “what do you want?” Or we can continue to dumb-down the curriculum until they stop complaining. When it comes to needs, the kids don’t have the slightest clue. And this is a very important point, because it leads us to the central reason why education is in deep do-do: those who are in a position to determine what the kids really need fail to act on that knowledge and fall into the marketing trap of simply determining what the kids want and then attempting to meet those fleeting wants by insisting that they are providing the things the kids really need. It’s the path of least resistance. The confusion is abundant and until it is cleared up there is little likelihood that those who teach will lead those who learn rather than the other way around.

But there’s another distinction that we seldom make and that is the distinction between education and training. I have discussed the confusion in previous blogs but have never focused on the key difference — until now. Training involves teaching learners how to do something, say, make widgets. Education involves understanding why we might want to make widgets in the first place. This is a critical difference, and the fact that education has devolved into job training is a serious mistake, because we need folks now more than ever who ask the troubling questions — why DO we make widgets?

There is a growing number of company CEOs who insist that educators are failing because the people coming out of college lack the ability to communicate, read and write memos, and speak before an audience. These highly paid corporate bosses talk a great deal about the need for these young people to have a broader, “liberal education,” though what they mean is that the folks they hire should be more effective at their jobs. However, at the level at which people are hired the message to hire broadly educated employees has failed to filter down and the initial search is simply for college graduates who can do a particular job, who can make widgets. The computer apps these recruiters use tend to screen out applicants who have majored in, say, philosophy, because presumably those people cannot make widgets (even though they could be trained to do so in a matter of weeks [days?]). So the job market looks bleak for graduates in such subjects as philosophy, literature, and history, because they are weeded out by a process that is designed to assure companies that the folks hired can do meaningless jobs without the companies themselves having to spend money training them: the colleges are now expected to turn out people to make widgets, not ask why those widgets are being made in the first place. So, many college students are now getting double majors — one in a broader field they actually enjoy and another, narrower one, that will get them past the initial screening for that first job. Not a bad strategy.

Even the CEOs who speak about the need for liberally educated employees don’t really mean it. The last thing they want is employees who ask troubling questions. They want workers who are already trained and can effectively make and market the products. The irony is that those who stop to ask the troubling questions would make the best employees in the long run because it is those people who can not only learn how to make and market the products, but they can also figure out how to improve those products as the world changes and demands for new products arise — as they most assuredly will. Because the only certain thing about the future is that things will change. And this is why America needs educated college graduates, not simply those trained to make widgets.

Computer Fix (Revisited)

I am re-blogging a slightly modified post I entered well over a year ago because it is still timely. In fact, our obsession with electronic toys has grown by leaps and bounds and those who keep “updating” our schools by supplying all the kids with computers are ignoring the facts. This was brought home to me recently when reading a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The story recounted the determination of the St. Paul School Board to put iPads in the hands of every student from kindergarten through high school. The district recently passed a referendum that allowed them to allocate $9 million a year for the next few years for its “Personalized Learning Through Technology Program.” I kid you not! $5.7 million will be spent this year and $8 million a year thereafter to make sure no students are left behind (as it were.)  According to spokespersons, this “would make learning more engaging, hands-on, and tailored to the needs of the students on their own digital turf.” I hasten to note that this person is speaking about “wants” and not “needs,” since it’s not clear that the students need to be met on their own digital turf. Rather, they should move from that turf and seek something higher, something that will actually make them smarter and not just indulge their current urges. What they need is better teachers who are paid a living wage. But a $9 million referendum that might be used to raise teachers’ salaries would surely fail to pass. Parents may agree to build more buildings, put toys in the hands of their kids, and expand the sports programs; they will never agree to pay the teachers what they are worth. And this explains a great deal about why America’s schools are in the dumpster at present.

But, the spokesperson, responds, “Our students are millennialists who have tremendous digital fluency and we must tap into that.” To which I simply ask “why?” Why should we tap into a fluency they already possess? Shouldn’t we seek to develop skills they do not already possess? How else can they grow? But of course, the name of the game these days is to lower the bar and meet the students where they are even though this means they will remain where they are. The point was made by a pundit in the same paper who agrees with me that this is a complete waste of money and totally wrong-headed.  Joe Soucheray points put that “First of all, iPads are not learning tools. They are toys. It is not plausible that the average kid handed a free iPad is going to do anything with it but play games and get deeper and deeper into the social media funk, while, meanwhile, perfectly good books are going unread and unknown and gathering dust on the shelves.”

It seems as though every photo we see showing a modern classroom puts the smiling kids in front of a computer screen: we have become convinced that these tools are indispensable and of unquestioned value to all students of all ages. But this is not the case. We are being sold a bill of goods. The good folks in St. Paul, Minnesota have been sold a bill of goods. And, I dare say, other communities will want to “keep up” and will soon decide that their kids need more technical toys as well. The problem, as Jane Healy pointed out years ago and which has been corroborated numerous times since, is that mounting evidence shows these devices leave the left hemisphere of the child’s brain undeveloped and they are subsequently unable to develop speech and thinking skills. There are a number of “windows of opportunity” that are open in the child’s early years. Once those windows are closed by replacing reading and story-telling with TV and other electronic toys, it becomes nearly impossible to open them again. This strikes me as a problem worth pondering again.

Professor Healy, whom I have referred to in these blogs before, has written a book Failure to Connect that comes out against computer assisted learning, especially in the early grades. Her message comes through with considerable conviction and persuasive power. One of the reviewers on Amazon who knows whereof he speaks gave the book high grades:

“As a person who grew up in the technology age, who has over 10 yrs of experience in industry, who has two young children in public schools, and who happens to be working on a Ph.D in issues of technology and society, I am directly involved with the issues she raises. Healy’s research and argumentation leave something to be desired, but her basic conclusions are correct: there is little or no justification for the use of computers or other high technology devices in schools, especially elementary and middle schools. [Those] who are critical of Healy are not addressing the main points: (1) there is little evidence that computer-aided instruction improves academic performance; (2) there is sufficient evidence, although no proof, that computer usage can be both physically and mentally harmful, and this justifies great caution; (3) the idea that kids need computer experience ‘to get ready for the real world’, or ‘to be competitive’, is a complete myth. Everything a child needs to learn about computers can be accomplished in the last few years of high school. Children in K-5 especially have virtually zero need for computer technology, and no one I have come across has provided arguments to the contrary.

“Too many teachers and parents mindlessly follow along with the trend of computerizing our schools. In a debate dominated by one side, all opposing views are welcome. Healy provides an accessible account of the anti-technology case, and this alone makes her book well worth reading.”

I quote the comments at some length because they are both well stated and also to the point. It is certainly the case that the argument in favor of using computers in the classroom has been made, for the most part, by those with a vested interest in their use — to wit, the corporations that stand to profit from computer sales. Parents and teachers have also found it a way to keep the kids occupied, and it appears as though they are a terrific aid to learning. They can be, but only if we equate “learning” with “collecting information.” Real learning requires good teaching and the asking of pertinent questions. Healy, in contrast with those who defend the toys, has no axe to grind. Further, she has had considerable classroom experience and has also taught in schools of education. She started her career in complete support of computer-assisted learning and after years of hands-on experience and considerable research decided that putting computers in the hands of young kids is a serious mistake. Listen up, St. Paul, Minnesota!!

Healy has for years given careful thought to the question of what we are doing to our kids’ minds. Modern brain scan devices have provided us with mounting evidence of the damage these toys can do and that evidence is strong, as the reviewer above suggests. We should pull back and rethink our fascination with things technical: they appear to be damaging the brains of those who use them, especially young kids. Whether or not we buy Healy’s thesis, prudence would urge caution, surely, though it’s a bit late for that in St. Paul.

Is there any better way for a child to learn than to have them in a room with a dedicated teacher who listens, asks questions, and carefully explains what kids need to know? Surely not. It takes work and a devotion to what one is doing, but computer toys simply cannot replace dialogue. We need to think again about our mindless conviction that what is newer and faster is ipso facto better. What can technical wizardry possibly promise that would in fact improve on human contact and interaction? Nothing.

Licensed to Kill

I recently had coffee with my friend Lloyd — the blind man I wrote about months ago who simply doesn’t know the meaning of the word “can’t.” He is grieving over the loss of his guide dog “Unity” who died as the result of an accident that he and Lloyd recently were involved in. They were hit by a car driven by an 87 year-old man who walks with the aid of a walker — and apparently drives pretty much the way Lloyd would, if he drove.

Lloyd was crossing a busy street on his way back from the local “Y” where he does a daily workout. The cross-traffic was stopped at the red light but the driver of the car that hit him turned right from behind Lloyd and knocked him out of his shoes and dragged his dog several feet. After the cops arrived along with the ambulance, the driver of the car kept yelling at anyone  who would listen “But I had a green light.” Yes, but pedestrians have the right of way, Grandpa. Always. And when they are blind and being led by a dog they are given the right of way regardless of the color of the traffic light.

Lloyd recovered from a torn meniscus and a broken bone in his leg after some minor surgery, but Unity did not. Three weeks after the accident she died in Lloyd’s arms and, understandably, Lloyd is still grieving while he waits on a long list for another dog. When one is available he will board a plane in Minneapolis and fly to New Jersey to get the dog and spend some time while they get to know one another and he comes to love the dog as much as he did Unity. He will make the trip alone. As I say, Lloyd doesn’t know the meaning of the word “can’t.” Lloyd has already forgiven the elderly driver and even went to his home and told him so. He is a much more forgiving person than I would be.

I have always wondered about people who admire the elderly who still drive. “Grandpa is 90 and he still drives!” I can understand why Grandpa wants to drive as long as possible and I am sure that when I am that age (which day creeps slowly toward me relentlessly) I will want to continue to drive. No one wants to give up his or her sense of independence, especially in a rural area where it is difficult to get around. But I hope I will think of Lloyd who doesn’t drive (though I bet he could if we wanted to) and still manages to get around — until some old codger runs him down, breaks his leg and his heart, and kills his dog.

Love and Hate

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT:

Things I hate.

. People who drive while on their cell phones.

People who talk loudly in public on their cell phones.

. People who talk on their cell phones while at a public restaurant with other folks at the same table.

. Cell phones.

. People who have WAY more than 12 items in the express lane at the grocery store.

. Cars that cruise at or below the limit in the passing lane in four-lane traffic.

. Cars that pull on to the four-laner when both lanes are occupied.

. Male actors and models who need a shave. (Make up your mind: Either shave entirely or grow a beard.)

. People who screw up and smile and say “Sorry ’bout that.”

. Parents who can’t (or simply won’t) control their kids in public.

. Loud noise issuing forth from the open windows of a passing car.

 

Things I love.

 

. My wife, two sons, and four granddaughters.

. Beautiful sunsets and sun rises.

. Beautiful music.

. Lively and imaginative art.

. Lively and imaginative people.

. Great books.

. Extraordinary athletic feats in any sport.

. Puppies.

. British mysteries.

. The smell of newly cut grass.

. Spending time with my wife.

. The comments made on my blog by some of my favorite readers.

 

 

 

The Man And His Art

Many people avoid reading Fyodor Dostoevsky because they are put off by the Russian names. This is a shame, because he is one of the greatest writers of all time and some of his novels rank among the best the human mind has yet to come up with. In fact, no one less that Sigmund Freud said that The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps Dostoevsky’s best known novel, is the greatest novel ever written. Well, Freud would say that; it involves patricide, one of Freud’s favorite themes. But then many agree with Freud and so far as I know these critics don’t have any hidden psychological theories to confirm. Dostoevsky simply could write and his novels reveal a great deal of us to ourselves — perhaps more than we might choose to know — and about the world in which we live.

Great novels are not all about plot, to be sure. But if they were, many people would say  that Dostoevsky’s life is even more captivating than any of his novels. As a young man he dared to meet with some of his fellow students to discuss anarchistic ideas at a time when Russia was suffering from paranoia under the Czar and as the revolution was brewing beneath the calm surface of Russian life. He and his friends were caught, tried, and found guilty. He was sentenced to death and moments before the firing squad shot him dead he was pardoned by a “humane” Czar — a device apparently designed to turn Dostoevsky’s affections toward Mother Russia and away from revolutionary ideas.  The version of the story I read was that a soldier came riding up to the scene of the execution on his horse with a pardon in his hand just as the firing squad was taking aim. Whether this is true or not, and despite the fact that it had to be traumatic, the ploy may have worked, since the author became increasingly conservative in his later life — but not before he spent five years in Siberia in lieu of execution. He later wrote The House of The Dead expressing some of the horrors he himself experienced in prison. But this was not his only largely biographical novel: as I shall explain in a moment, he later wrote another one out of necessity.

After prison, perhaps as a result of the traumas he had suffered,  he became a compulsive gambler and also suffered from epilepsy. His gambling placed him in debt time after time and he lived from hand to mouth for many years as he developed his distinctive writing style and began writing short novels, exhibiting a fascination with odd psychological types and conditions, such as schizophrenia. His first novel, The Double, is about a man who gradually goes mad and one day goes to work to find himself already there! But Dostoevsky’s gambling placed him in the debt of his publishers who advanced him money on future publications until one crafty publisher gave him a large advance on the condition that he agree to sign over all his past and future works if he failed to meet a deadline to deliver a novel of roughly 200 pages by a specified date. He gambled away the advance and fell behind the writing of the novel until he realized that he couldn’t possibly meet the deadline as the novel he had started was becoming a major work, well over 200 pages. He hired a stenographer and dictated a shorter novel in the mornings which would meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. His stenographer spent the afternoons writing up what he dictated in the mornings, as Dostoevsky spent those afternoons working on the longer novel — Crime and Punishment. He finished the shorter novel, called The Gambler (that other biographical novel mentioned above) in time to meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. He then went on to finish the longer, and more important novel. He also fell in love with and married his stenographer and she managed to help him turn his life around. He no longer gambled and he had fewer and fewer epileptic fits. He also wrote four of his five greatest novels after this marriage, including The Brothers Karamazov.

So, despite the fact that his novels are extraordinary, there are those who would argue that his life was even more fascinating than his novels. It is certainly the case that his remarkable life revealed to him the dark sides of the human psyche — his own and others — and deepened his interest in the New Testament, human suffering, redemption, the problem of evil, human freedom, and the close relationship between love and hate. He was a remarkable man who was also an extraordinary writer who saw more clearly than most what was true and what is false about human existence. If you haven’t read any of his novels, you owe it to yourself to do so. Once you plunge in you will get used to the Russian names, and  if you don’t read Russian (!) those who do so agree that the best translations are the ones by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.