I have a weird rule by which I abide, and that is that if I decide to read a book, then I must finish it before I allow myself to read any other books. Even if that other book looks outrageously awesome, I may not read it until I finish the book I am working on at the moment.
When it came to reading Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History, work was the appropriate word. The book is all about labor, laborers, and labor camps, and it is in some way a chore to read.
That is not to say that it was an unpleasant read; I enjoyed nearly every chapter, nearly every personal narrative. The chore was that it was 586 pages, and it was just not humanly possible to read this book in one sitting or two sittings or three sittings. The book demanded that you work to finish it and work I did.
I am not going to tell you about what is in it; that's for you to find out. I will just say that Applebaum's work is exhausting. I have no idea how a person can even write a book so comprehensive on such a topic. Where does one start? Where does one end? How does one know what to keep in and what to exclude? I have no idea.
Let me add this: Anne Applebaum scares me. Sure, the horrors of the Gulag as related by this book were sickening, giving you that nauseous feeling in the pit of your stomach that you get when you read the end of the Diary of Anne Frank. But this intrepid reporter genuinely frightens me because I know somewhere in my heart that there is just no way that I could ever produce something like Gulag.
It's perhaps like being a guitar player and listening to Jeff Beck conjure airplanes in his amplifier. You just know that you may be able to play your tune and play it well, but you also know that you will never be able to play it like Jeff Beck. Where there is wonder, there is also sometimes disappointment.
Despite my newfound fear of Applebaum, in some odd way I felt I came to know something of her personality. She dwells a bit on the reading and writing opportunities for political prisoners, and I guess that she must have in some ways identified with those young social revolutionaries imprisoned on Solovetsky in the 1920s who spent their days alone with their thoughts and the local mosquitos. Paper and pen have additional meaning to her, and why wouldn't they? As she has proven with this work, she's a writer.
A friend of mine once said that when you marry a foreigner, you marry the whole country, and in Applebaum's case, she is married to Poland. Legend has it that her next work will be more exclusively about Poland and its neighborhood. Stay tuned.