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'Books Behind Bars' Brings Tolstoy to Troubled Teens

Sep 04, 2014
Russian Literature Scholar and Lecturer Andrew Kaufman with Katie Couric and and former Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center resident Douglas Avila

What does a 150-year-old book written by a dead Russian guy have to do with life in today’s world?

“Everything,” says University of Virginia Russian literature scholar Andrew D.  Kaufman.

Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Kaufman suggests, is at once a mirror of our times, an urgent moral compass and a celebration of the deep joy of living. Originally published in 1865, its themes resonate today: it is a love story, a family saga, a war novel, yet at its core it is a book about people trying to find their footing in a ruptured world. Humans trying to create a meaningful life for themselves in a country torn apart by war, social change and spiritual confusion – that’s an all-too-familiar vision in current global events.

Considered by many to be the greatest novel ever written, and one of the most challenging texts, “War and Peace” – at 1,500 pages, 365 chapters and 566,000 words – has also been one of the most feared. In “Give ‘War and Peace’ a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times,” Kaufman unlocks the wisdom of this iconic novel for 21st-century readers while never seeking to replace the experience of reading it.

Kaufman’s book launch kicks off Tuesday with a reading at 5:20 p.m. at New Dominion Bookshop, to be followed by a reception. He will also read on June 5 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble.

Kirkus Reviews writes: “Kaufman looks to [‘War and Peace’] for guidance, ‘not so much as a set of answers to life’s every challenge as an attitude towards living.’”

To Kaufman, Tolstoy has been a spiritual inspiration and “War and Peace” a guide to living. The single greatest lesson Kaufman has learned from Tolstoy is to “love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”

To that end, he focuses on a dozen themes: plans, imagination, rupture, success, idealism, happiness, love, family, courage, death, perseverance and truth. In each chapter, Kaufman analyzes how the novel speaks to those themes, offers insights into Tolstoy’s life “of extremes and contradictions,” provides relevant Russian history and shares personal anecdotes about his own “tumultuous, spiritual journey.”

Kaufman has spent the last 20 years bringing alive the Russian classics to young and old. An innovative, award-winning teacher of Russian language, literature and culture, Kaufman earned a Ph.D. from Stanford University and currently lectures at U.Va. in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. He is an affiliate of Youth-Nex: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

The author of “Understanding Tolstoy” and co-author of “Russian for Dummies,” Kaufman has appeared on national and international television and radio shows and was a featured Tolstoy expert for Oprah.com when she selected “Anna Karenina” for her millions of book club readers. He was quoted on a National Public Radio program about six weeks ago, “Vladimir Putin is Right Out of a Russian Novel.”

In addition to his Russian expertise, Kaufman created and teaches a community-based literature course, “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature and Leadership,” in which U.Va. students lead discussions about Russian literature with incarcerated youth at juvenile correctional and treatment centers in Virginia.

The “Books Behind Bars” program has caught the attention of national and international media several times over the past year, most recently TV talk-show host Katie Couric’s. Last week, she interviewed him and his students in the studio, and last month filmed them in the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, for a segment that aired Thursday on Yahoo’s “Katie.” A Russian television station recently filmed Kaufman and the prison program for a show to air in May or June. The Huffington Post and the Daily Beast just featured his articles, and WVTF’s Sandy Hausman interviewed him for an upcoming public radio segment.

  • Andrew D. Kaufman, “Give ‘War and Peace’ a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times.” Simon & Schuster