Actor Aidan Quinn on how Dostoyevsky changed his life and made him a better performer.
My father was an English teacher, and my family moved back and forth between Ireland and the United States. In my house, you couldn’t go anywhere without tripping over books by Beckett, O’Casey, Yeats, and all the other great Irish writers. When I was young, however, I was more focused on sports than books and reading. That changed in my teens.
At that time, I literally disappeared into books. My mother even thought there was something wrong with me. She told me that I needed to get out more and socialize, but I was simply lost in the enchanted world of great novels. I couldn’t stop – I just couldn’t stop.
That period lasted for almost five years. It was the most intense period of reading in my life: I probably read more in those five years than in the ensuing twenty years combined. And the book that really started it, the one that stuck in my head, the one that literally changed my life, was Notes from Underground, by Dostoyevsky.
At the time, I was very much an outsider, aligned with the misfits and poets. I loathed all those popular people and, of course, felt guilty about that, because I knew it was ridiculous and that I had my own demons to deal with.
Dostoyevsky’s unnamed and unhappy narrator in Notes from Underground – the ultimate outsider – seemed to speak directly to me. A minor government worker, he has long, rambling, internal dialogues with himself, during which he insults every one of his superiors, the people he works with, and the popular writers he admires. His negative thoughts fill him with guilt and self-loathing. Surprisingly, for such an angry person, he could also be incredibly generous and soulful. His paradoxical schizophrenia seemed familiar to me; it plugged directly into the angst I was feeling as a teenager.
Notes from Underground was a seminal book in my life, from one of the great writers of all times. I felt like the narrator understood me. But it was more than that, I felt like he understood outsiders in general, humanity, and the human psyche.
I felt validated. I was ecstatic. I was alive and I couldn’t wait to share it with one of my best friends, Bill Roberts, because I knew he would love it as well. We would read passages together out loud and laugh uproariously at the mere mortals (similar to the popular folks in high school) the narrator would skewer. I had never reread a book before and, with the exception of Hamlet, I have never reread a book since. But I clearly remember rereading Notes from Underground.
That was my introduction to Dostoyevsky and I started plowing though his books: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, and others. Then I remember thinking, “Oh no, this one is going to end too,” so I started to parcel out the reading, 25 pages a night to make it last. I really savored those books.
About a year after Notes from Underground, I discovered A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. It had some of the same themes as Notes from Underground, but with the added layers of a world I knew. I had already lived in Dublin, and this was about my tribe.
That period of intense reading certainly influenced my choice of professions. I love storytelling, and as an actor, that’s what I’m part of. When I’m lucky enough to be doing a great role that takes an audience on a wonderful journey, I love it. And even though I love acting and I’m in no way belittling it, I sometimes think it’s a poor second to what I dreamed of doing: writing.
I always wanted to be the creator of one of those wonderful books, but as a young man, I found that I just didn’t have the discipline for the aloneness of it. So I continue to read while somewhere, in the back of my mind and perhaps with a little bit of denial, I still dream about becoming a writer when I grow up. ♦
This essay, originally written in 2003, is included in the new anthology The World Is Just A Book Away, a collection of 60 essays from some of the world’s most famous and inspirational figures about how books and reading impacted their lives. Profits from the anthology, edited by James Owens (above), professor of management communication at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, will go to the international children’s literacy charity he founded of the same name, which promotes literacy by developing libraries, educational programs, and book purchases for students who have none.
The World Is Just A Book Away is published by USC Libraries Press
(November 2017 / 242 pp. / $29.99)