Of Doctor Zhivago and literacy in a visual society

I’ve just finished reading Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak. I enjoyed the book. My exposure to Russian literature has been limited, but the book immediately struck me with its similarities to other Russian works I’ve read. A sweeping breadth, an acceptance of suffering, it’s darkness.

But this is not a review of the book – feel free to read the 68 reviews on Amazon for a start. I was intrigued by some of those same reviews, and what they said about literacy. Here’s one:

Knowing the reputation of Pasternak and this novel I was expecting to be more entertained than when I saw the film. It was not so. Pasternak had a wonderful story to tell, but whole pages included descriptions of terrain and weather and such. The film was able to do this much better as these descriptions were important.

The descriptons of terrain and weather were fantastic. I can’t imagine them better in a film. There’s the crux. I can’t imagine them better. A book is a meeting between a reader and the author. No two encounters will be the same. And that applies to the same person reading the book a second time. This reader finds pages of descriptions too long. Now I haven’t seen the film, but I find it hard to believe that being presented someone else’s vision can be more powerful than creating your own in your mind. Reading is an act of creation too, much more so than television of film.

Next, in a review entitled At least the movie is good:

I don’t mind philosophy in literature, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the story central to the novel.

The other thing I feel I must comment on is that I must echo previous reviewers and say the names are very confusing. He uses first names, last names, nicknames, maiden names, aliases, and pseudonyms, all interchangibly, all with no regularity. With a novel already populated with many different characters, referring to those characters in 5 different ways makes the story very difficult to follow, and puts up an unnecessary roadblock to the reader.

I guess I just expected more.

The reader clearly expected less. Less philosophy, and simpler, Western-style names. Besides being more creative, reading also takes more effort than visual media. You have to remember a name (or 5 names as the reviewer exaggerates) without any sort of visual cue. You’re also not usually burdened with having to worry about any meddlesome love of wisdom (philosophy).


Great book, but if you really want to understand the plot, watch one of the (2 video) movies!!!


The movie may have won a few Oscars but the book is definitely not much to write home about. […] Pasternak’s inclination to scrutinize every scene with tedious details and his habit of referring to each character by one of their three names causes one to flip back to the previous pages every five minutes. By the end of the book I was so frustrated that I just finished the book without understanding the significance of half the characters.

At least we’re down to a more accurate three names now. But the reviews share a number of things in common.

  • more entertained by the film
  • book too difficult
  • book too tedious

They’re really related. Being more familiar with the less challenging visual medium of film, they can easily sit back and be entertained by the film, while the book presents certain challenges. The difficulties of following the complexities of the names, or the philosophy, or the lack in being unable to imagine a scenic description, all put barriers in front of an appreciation of the book.

Wikipedia too, inadvertantly makes the point, when the link to Doctor Zhivago brings up the film, while you need to go to Doctor Zhivago (novel) to get to a description of the book.

I’ve never believed the gloom-mongers who prattle on about the death of literacy. Reading has always been a minority pastime. There are numerous reasons for this, one important one being a lack of leisure time to read. It’s not only those spending 12 hours down a mine shaft, or clockwatching at their desk, who don’t have much leisure time. Even myself, who has all the opportunity to do tonnes of reading, seem too imbued with the remnants of a Calvinist work to permit myself the opportunity. I’m lucky enough to have been quite sick since Thursday, and this gave me a great opportunity to catch up on some reading. I almost think I get sick on purpose just to give myself the pleasure of a day in bed with a book.

Reading is not dying out. There’s no need for a false us or them debates about whether film/TV/Internet is going to kill off reading . Other media will play their roles, but reading is unique. It’s slow, and, with a certain amount of effort allows a reader to approach a level of depth unavailable in other media. One of my favourite pieces of writing is William Blakes Jerusalem (not the more well-known short poem, rather the longer work, fully titled Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. The ideas were utterly profound to me at the time, but it took an immense amount of exertion to begin to appreciate them. And the rewards were more than I can expect to come from any other form of media. Reading is not better because of that. Other media don’t need to be demonised to defend reading as the book publishing industry, concerned with a falling sale here or there tends to do. I’m grateful for the ability and opportunity to read, relatively critically and appreciatively. For the reading evangelists, isn’t pitching the positives a better way than false negative horror stories?


  1. >I’ve never believed the gloom-mongers
    >who prattle on about the death of

    You are right Ian, I did a quick google (you know by now I always do that 🙂 ) and found that book sales, at least for the three major booksellers in north america, have been consistantly on the increase for the last five years by between 3% and 7% per year.

    One reference is here: http://www.fonerbooks.com/booksale.htm

    Of course this could be just a result of the growth of the internet but nevertheless I find it encouraging.

  2. Revisiting this post today, I see that Wikipedia has reversed things, and “Doctor Zhivago” now links to the novel 🙂

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