Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

*This is the first of many book reviews I hope to write. I want to write book reviews to become a more critical reader and to better connect what I’m reading to my personal experiences and the world at large. These reviews will contain spoilers and are all my personal opinions.*


I’ll admit, the first time I “read” this book, I listened to it with x1.5 speed for the first ~100 pages and Sparknoted the rest. I didn’t really get into the plot, seeing that I dismissed Raskolnikov as being strange, depraved, narcissistic, and exceedingly arrogant. His theory that some people were just born extraordinary and were thus exempt from all moral justice didn’t appeal to me—I had gone through the nihilistic and egotistic phase in life, and came out realizing that no one person is above another. He was so delusional, and though I understood his motives on a rational level, I never saw his plight in an emotional way.

Despite this terrible initial impression, I chose to do Crime and Punishment as one of my rereads in my English class (mostly because of my guilt for never actually reading the book and partly because I read some raving reviews on Goodreads and was intrigued by how people found value in it).

Senioritis hit me pretty hard, and I finally sat down with a resolve to read the book after coming to terms that I only had three days left to write an essay on it. It was hard to get through the first hundred pages—I know it’s supposed to be a page-turner, but honestly, I was quite bored. Several times, I questioned why I didn’t just choose a shorter, less tedious book to write about (and one that I had already read and had pages of notes on). Raskolnikov got on my nerves and was remarkably two-dimensional for someone who commits murder. The book seemed to try to be deep without really being too philosophical.

It was only in the later half of the book when I started getting really into the novel. As I started reading slower—finally absorbing the book—I began to feel real sympathy for all of the characters: Raskolnikov, Dounia, Sonia, Katerina, Marmeladov, and even Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov’s murders, though the central focus of the novel, weren’t what I found the most interesting—it was the complexity of the side characters and what drove them to do such strange and unexpected things.

I saw Katerina’s dignity as she spent her last rouples on an excessive dinner that was well beyond her means—how she danced on the street and proclaimed her ties to aristocracy. Instead of dismissing her as overly proud and shallow, I pitied and respected her. I saw Marmeladov as a good-for-nothing drunk of a father who let his daughter sell herself to prostitution while he sucked her money away, but I also saw his deep love for his family and respected him for that. I saw the parallels between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov, and between Sonia, Dounia, and even Lizaveta. I loved and admired Dounia—her strength, her unwavering love and devotion for Raskolnikov, and simple practicality. Though he was a vile man, I even sympathized with the despicable Svidrigailov, and the motivation behind his suicide fascinated me. As I continued reading, I saw the layers of the book and realized that these subplots and characters, interwoven together, were what made this book a powerful masterpiece.

There were so many things I could have written about for my essay, and had I more time, I may have thought more deeply about how poverty affected Katerina or about the role of women in the novel. (Instead, I wrote about similarities and significance of Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov’s dreams—which were interesting in their own right, but not what gripped me when reading the novel.)

In all, though this book was extremely tedious (and had way too many long names), it was worth the effort. It was only when I let my guard down—when I turned off my rationalizing, judgmental brain and started to feel sympathy for the characters—when I actually started to comprehend the greatness of the novel. (Ironically, I suppose that is how Raskolnikov also became redeemed—through abandoning his over-rationalized theory.) This book challenged me in unexpected ways and made me think more deeply about poverty, justice, and morality. I’m thinking of reading this book again—this time letting it wash over me and without an impending deadline for an essay—and I’ll have no doubt that I will grow to appreciate it even more.

My Father

Written in eighth grade, randomly stumbled upon recently:

“I could’ve been someone,” my dad says. “The next Einstein or Newton, I could have made the next Google.” I believe him, and I tell him this.

He grew up in a small, poor town in China, but nevertheless got into the best university in the whole country at the age of 16. For four years of his high school life, he did nothing else but study, study so that he could get into the best university, so that he could get the best-paying job, so that he could have a good rest of his life. His hard work paid off though- he brought his whole family to America. If he had stayed in China, I wouldn’t even be alive, due to the law which restricts having more than one child.

My dad is the life of parties, the one who always is in the center of the spotlight. He’s the motor of the family, the backbone of his workplace. He comes up with the strangest ideas, like bicycling to work, or digging a hole to make a jacuzzi in the sand. When I have questions in math, I know who I should talk to. He’s always there, as sure as the next tick of a clock, as steady as the beat of a butterfly’s wings.

Sometimes I feel bad, like somehow I know that if he didn’t settle down and have a family, if he hadn’t spent so much time and energy into making the family function, then he could have been someone big.

But then I realize that maybe devoting one’s life to something that seems small, like raising a family and watching children grow up, can sometimes be better than being someone big.

On Confidence

“Strange about learning; the farther I go the more I see that I never knew even existed. A short while ago I foolishly thought I could learn everything – all the knowledge in the world. Now I hope only to be able to know of its existence, and to understand one grain of it. Is there time?” — Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I have always been unsure of myself and the world around me. I’m even unsure of my unsureness. I don’t understand how any non-delusional person can truly be confident in anything — we know so little, and everything has some degree of uncertainty.

We should be humbled by the expanse of knowledge we don’t know and will never know, and learn to be content with what we have while wanting more. Our obsession with confidence must end because it is simply a method to look like we know what we’re doing, causing us to equate confidence with truth. Sure, presentation does matter, but content matters just as much.

At the same time, having the right level of confidence is important — too much, and your ego will explode; too little, and it’ll be hard to reach your full potential. But instead of trying to just “be confident,” we should strive for self-acceptance, compassion, and awareness. Confidence is just a byproduct of these qualities.

Skepticism cultivates curiosity, and questioning the status quo is the only way to improve. Confidence is settling. And I don’t ever want to settle.

On Leadership

True leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a good leader. I used to think that a good leader was just someone who could complete a task without being excessively cruel or arrogant — someone who was respected through their actions.

This past couple of years, I’ve learned that leading a team through a task is a lot more complicated than doing the task itself. The task must be broken down, each piece delegated to a specific person or group of people, and then integrated together. For larger projects, this process must be repeated until the final task is completed. Most importantly, I learned that leadership is about understanding people.

Leadership isn’t just managing or leading by example, and it’s more than competence in completing tasks. It’s not doing things on your own — the whole point of leadership is to get people inspired and to help them become significant in determining the outcome of the project. It’s having a vision and knowing how to execute it. It’s being both reactive and proactive, and being one or more steps ahead of others in order to guide them in the right direction. It’s listening to and respecting all voices, but having the courage to make the final decision. A good leader is someone who doesn’t lead for the sake of leading, but with the passion for serving the team and cause.

This year, I want to focus on learning how to become the best leader of my ability. I want to lead with more charisma, assertiveness, and awareness. These qualities don’t come naturally, but I know I can do it.

Reflection on School

* This will be part of a series of posts on education (since I have a ton of thoughts about this topic, having spent a lot of time in school). This post will mainly focus on my own experiences in the education system while a future post will be a more general critique of the educational system in the US. There will probably be some overlap and a lot of ranting.

I have no doubt learned a lot from school, and I’m deeply grateful to learn from teachers who genuinely care about their students and love what they’re teaching. As a student from one of the top public high schools in America, I really should have no reason to complain. I know many people would do anything to receive the quality of education that I get, and I am incredibly lucky to have all the opportunities I have. Despite this, there are a ton of flaws I see in my own experience with the educational system.

Back in the elementary school days, I loved school. I went to an amazing elementary school with compassionate teachers and kind peers. I got to do projects on dogs, learn about the Gold Rush, make a paper maché of California, do book reports, and more. I definitely didn’t feel like I was at my intellectual potential, but I did learn a lot about being a good person. However, when middle school rolled around, I found myself being extremely bored. God, did middle school have a ton of busy work. If I learned anything from doing the busy work in middle school, it was how to spend the least amount of time and effort completing assignments. There were a few years when I felt unfulfilled in math class, when history class consisted of answering worksheets and not really learning history, when my understanding of science stagnated. Although I still loved learning, I lost sight of the larger picture and what the point of education was. In hindsight, I wish I were homeschooled in middle school or at least took advantage of online courses in math.

Last year, I took a really fun math class (taught by an amazing teacher). We learned about eigenvalues and eigenvectors, group theory, types of infinities, probability using matrices, and more cool stuff. Many days, I would walk out of the class with my mind blown. That was when I realized that high school wasn’t just something I had to complete in order to get to the fun in college. I realized that I wanted high school to be a place where I would get my mind blown every day. I wanted a place that could challenge my beliefs, to teach me that everything I knew before was false. I wanted a place that excited me. The saddest part was, I realized a lot of my time in school was not spent that way — not getting my mind blown, not being excited. And it’s not the teacher’s fault if people don’t feel challenged — after all, it’s a lot of work to teach thirty kids with different learning styles and paces at once. The information itself was interesting, no doubt — it just wasn’t individualized enough.

Doing well in school has been something I expected from myself, but I don’t necessarily see that as a good thing. I’ve learned how to follow rules, almost to a fault. I became an excellent sheep, as William Deresiewicz would say. I cared about my grades too much, to the point of stressing out whenever I got an A-minus. And to what end? Does learning how to follow rules actually help in the “real world”? Not particularly. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, the main character, Gene, said that he did better in school than his friend because his friend cared too much about learning. This offhand remark has stuck with me ever since and has made me more conscious about the purpose of school. I realized that I wasn’t courageous enough to disregard busy work and fail in things I didn’t particularly find useful. The irony — who thought doing well in school meant compromising one’s passion for learning? Now, I’m learning to balance: following the rules enough to do well, but not enough to compromise my excitement for school.

Most of the people who attend my school care a lot about what college they attend. While I’m glad that we see the importance in college, it can also get unhealthy. We’re caught in a push and pull, with everyone saying different things. There’s the school administration (or perhaps it was just that one administrator), who tried to convince us at every assembly that “college doesn’t really matter in the end, because I went to a not-so-good college, but look at how successful I am now!”. Then there are Asian moms who think that college is the only thing that matters (not trying to perpetuate stereotypes on Asian moms, but it’s probably true). The truth is in the middle. What a lot of people don’t understand is that college is merely a means to an end, not an end to a means. College is just a stepping stone: an important one at that, and one that will change you forever, but just a stepping stone.

You know all of those people who say that high school “doesn’t matter,” that you don’t start living until you graduate? They’re dead wrong. I think the most empowering thing I learned in high school is that you don’t have to wait to do what you love and become the best version of yourself. I’m still working on internalizing that, but I feel like a lot of high schoolers get deluded into thinking that they can only be their true selves after they graduate high school — that life starts after high school. But our lives started when we were born, and won’t stop until we die (what a revelation, right?). So do what you want to do, because this is your life. (Listen to No Such Thing by John Mayer, which touches on this subject!)

No one really tells you what the point of education is. We’re expected to go through it, without ever questioning why we’re spending most of our lives sitting in desks and listening to our teachers, taking tests every week. But I think the only way to truly learn and appreciate school is to question and critique the system. In the end, grades, test scores, etc., are just motivation to build character and aren’t what truly matters. What matters most is the character you build and the wisdom you acquire.

On Worrying

One of the hardest yet most rewarding lessons I’ve learned is to only invest energy into things I can or have the potential to change.

When I was small, my family called me the “little grandma” because I loved to worry. Worrying and processing the world around me gave me a sense of control — if I had more knowledge of the world around me, I felt safer in moving towards my goals. For most of my life, my tendency to tread lightly has served me well and it’s become a large part of who I am.

But this past couple of years, there have been moments when my thoughts would consume me. I would think about something and not be able to let it go, playing it over and over in my head until it became a part of my existence. Worrying was a way to cope with external changes, but I realized that this constant churning was too draining. What used to give me a sense of control started to control me.

On another, external note: there are a lot messed up things in this world. People and animals get tortured and die every second. There’s so much pain in this world, but worrying about them doesn’t change a thing. It’s okay and even necessary to feel deeply about these injustices once in a while, but we also have to remember that there’s a delicate balance between being selfish and protecting our own mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes being “selfish” and apathetic in the short-term gives us more power to fix things in the future.

I can’t change other people. I can’t move mountains by thinking. But I can take action. I can embrace uncertainty, find comfort in not knowing, and trust in those around me. Life is long enough that these worries will be insignificant in the context of my existence, but it’s also short enough that I need to seize and make the best use of every minute.

On Our Limitations

We cannot imagine blistering cold in a desert of heat. We cannot imagine joy when we despair. We are limited to the moment and to our present states, and anyone who believes otherwise is simply delusional.

Our knowledge and understanding of the world is an infinitely small fraction of what there truly is. We think we know more than we do, and we form opinions on topics that we don’t even understand. Most of all, we seek meaning in a world where there is no inherent meaning. The world isn’t happy, sad, good, or bad. The world just is.

Despite, or even because of our limitations and our contradictions, I view humans as fascinating creatures. We are a product of evolution mixed with probability, and all of our basic needs have helped us survive as a species. All of the love, hate, longing, and despair we experience in our daily lives has evolved to keep us alive.

I often wonder — if there is a God, would the God be objective or subjective (or neither)? How could a being ever be completely objective? And how would it even be possible for God to be subjective, as thoughts contain subjectivity, and subjectivism is derived from feelings which are, in turn, derived from evolution? Did / does God evolve? And if God is “perfect,” does that mean he isn’t subjective, since perfection cannot be subjective? (Or can it? What even is perfection, and does it even exist?) Questions upon questions whirl in my head — not one discussed in Church, not one with a concrete answer (but that’s a different rant).

Sometimes I wish I could separate myself from my body and experiences to rid myself of these limitations (but would I still be “me,” without my body and experiences?). I want to take in the whole world at once, to feel everything yet nothing; and know everything, yet not know that I know anything. I want to strip my emotions from my thoughts, and to strip my thoughts from my consciousness — to become a higher conscious, perhaps. I don’t even want emotions or thoughts. I just want to know, to simply be.

I just finished reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and in many ways, I could see myself in Siddhartha’s younger, less enlightened days. He thought (like I think) that we are all like ants, like children, always seeking but never finding. At the end of the novel, Siddhartha becomes Enlightened because he is at peace. He does this by using love and interconnectivity as a blanket answer to all of his questions. But to me, the book was too simple. Love is just an overrated emotion, not an answer to life’s biggest questions. Maybe I didn’t really understand the book — I’ll probably reread it when I’m less stressed out!

Sorry if this post didn’t make much sense. Honestly, it didn’t make much sense to me either. Also, sorry if it sounds overly pessimistic because that’s not my intention. I intend to interpret the world in a “real” way — not pessimistic or optimistic, but objective. But due to my limitations, I don’t think I can ever begin to understand the world objectively because subjectivity skews everything.

“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.” — Sylvia Plath