Death, Music, Evil, and the Meaning of Life: M. T. Anderson’s Amazing Book on Shostakovich

I read a book on my vacation. This book:


I…I am flabbergasted. Confused. A bit stunned. 

See, when I got an email from the publicity department asking if I wanted to review the book, I thought: M. T. Anderson? Who wrote Strange Mr. Satie? Who writes many funny and smart things? A novel about the siege of Leningrad? Of course I wanted to read it! So I requested a copy.

When I got the copy, I took a step back. Because it wasn't a novel, as I would have known had I been a better email reader. It was a book of history. And it was 400 pages long. And it was something I would never, ever ordinarily read. Except then I did.

Here might be the time to own up to the reality that I was not (am not) an excellent student of history. My grasp of the world is spotty and far too fiction-based. And I was going to the beach for a week. Would I? Could I?

Well, I could and I did, and now I am not sure what to say. Except this: it was lovely, and strange, and I can't imagine who will read it. Except, of course, that I read it. Do kids read history? Of course they must. If they do, will they want to read this? That's what I can't wrap my mind around. I read this and I had to stop all the time to read things aloud to Chestnut, and we were both horrified and fascinated. The Great Terror. Starvation. Stalin. It is a litany of evil.

Which makes me wonder, too: I gasped in horror as I read this book. Often. How would a kid process this? 

I have no idea. On some level, it seems impossible to me that this will ever be read. Which is probably another way of saying that I would never have read it when I was a kid. But it is true, too, that there is something so noble about the book that way: it is true to itself, to what it wants to say, to the questions it wants to ask. How does music change the world? Does evil triumph? What are we humans when we've lost everything? It asks questions that truly bear thinking about. It thinks about, and talks about, music as though it's having a conversation with a symphony. Just the existence of this book fills me with a sort of awed hope.

If you are hanging around with a kid who wants to read about symphonies. Or music. Or war. Or evil. Or maybe who has no idea that she wants to read about all these things, but does, you could read this book together (the intensity of the war horrors might be too much to process alone) and it could be an astonishing and thrilling experience, I think. And I believe, too, that it must be good for the world that this book exists. 

One thought on “Death, Music, Evil, and the Meaning of Life: M. T. Anderson’s Amazing Book on Shostakovich

  1. You know, my 15-year-old might possibly read it, or at least take a stab at it. She went through a stint of obsession with North Korea a few months ago, during which she read all of (and I read about half of) NOTHING TO ENVY, which is an amazing book. So this wouldn’t be inconceivable for her.


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