The Secret Lives of Used Books (Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy)

Jon Zobenica
3 min readAug 31, 2020
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (New York: The Modern Library, 1950). Photograph by Jon Zobenica.

Judy Bolender grew up in Palo Alto, California. The 1940 census has her, then age eight, living at 909 Cowper Street with her parents, her two older sisters, and the family’s domestic, Erma Jones.

In the early 1990s, two friends and I lived for a time just around the corner from that address, at 535 Channing Avenue. Remove the intervening half century, and Judy and I could have walked to each other’s homes in less than a minute.

In 1952, when Judy inscribed this Modern Library edition of Anna Karenina (1877), she was enrolled at Stanford University, just across El Camino Real from her (our) old neighborhood, and was resident in Branner Hall. A scan of her yearbook portrait page gives a real flavor of American female names of the time. Three of Judy’s fellow residents are named Joan. Three are named Ann or Anne. There are three Barbaras, two Virginias, and two schoolmates named Dot. Then there’s Ginger, Betty, Micki, Vonnie, Yvonne, Beverly Ann, Phyllis, Gwen, Bobbie, Bernice, Rosalind, and Nan.

Stanford yearbook page, courtesy Ancestry.com

Hollywood reflected so many of those names: Judy Garland, Joan Fontaine, Ann Sheridan, Barbara Stanwyck, Virginia Mayo, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Yvonne De Carlo, Rosalind Russell.

When my friends and I lived on Channing, we had a neighbor named Joan with whom we were quite taken — a trim brunette with a bob cut and movie-star good looks. The sidewalk to her door was visible straight out our front window, and every time we noticed her coming or going, a disturbance ensued, particularly if she was on her way to the pool. One of us might jump up and contrive to chance upon her on the sidewalk — immediately deciding to check the mail, take out the trash, whatever the excuse, anything for a harmless, thrilling neighborly encounter. “Oh, hi!” Meanwhile, the other two of us would fight the urge to press our noses to the glass.

Where Tolstoy is concerned, I’m among those who feel that Anna Karenina is superior to War and Peace. Re the latter, I recommend Olivia Manning’s six-volume Fortunes of War series instead, two trilogies (The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy) written over a span of twenty years (1960–1980), and based on Manning’s own precarious expat experiences in Romania, Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Syria during World War II. Her characters — drawn from closely observed, real lives — exhibit a behavioral consistency that (to my taste) is more gripping than the dramatic behavioral evolutions through which Tolstoy put several of his characters in War and Peace. Those evolutions (again, to my taste) were too obviously the product of authorial design and narrative stratagem. As I’ve said to those who might care, Manning’s trilogies are what War and Peace would be if War and Peace were better.

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Jon Zobenica

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California. jonzobenica.wordpress.com