ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Our series, You Must Read This, starts the new year off with author Diana Abu-Jaber. She remembers discovering the work of her favorite writer when it was cold and dreary outside.
Ms. DIANA ABU-JABER (Author, "The Language of Baklava and Crescent"): As a child, I took the winter in central New York personally. By January, the sky over Syracuse turned pewter. Some years, it got so cold it felt like someone was trying to kill us. It seemed that we lived at the end of the Earth. I longed for and dreaded the holiday season, the way it tricked us each year, coaxing us into festivities, only to plunge us back to a season of darkness. The library, at least, was a warm place; that's where I found a collection of the short stories of Anton Chekhov.
I was in my first year of high school. I'd never heard of Chekhov, but something about the steady, scholarly gaze in the author's photograph caught my eye. I opened the book and read, the day was still, cool and wearisome, as usual, on grey, dull days when the clouds hang low over the fields and it looks like rain, which never comes. I was drawn into the immeasurable spaces of sky and the open Russian Steppes. There was something about those freezing depths that corresponded to my sense of winter. He was talking about bone-chilling places and worn-out people, but, somehow, the beauty of his language lifted everything up, giving it gravity and importance.
Chekhov's story, "In Exile," takes up the conversation in which a jaded old ferryman tells a young newcomer, if you want to be happy, the chief thing is not to want anything. Somewhere between the holiday cheer and the dark winter, this writer created new angles of light. Chekhov was a doctor as well as an author, and in each of his stories, he turns a strict physician's eye upon hard truths: the inhumane working conditions of the factories, the starving children, the broken families. But he also depicts moments of serene, glowing beauty as in "Gooseberries," describing a man's luxurious swim in a pond. Ah, how delicious, he shouted in his glee. How delicious.
As I read the collection, huddled in my drab room, I flipped to the photograph of the frowning author. I imagined him crossing Russia at night in a horse-drawn sleigh, calling on his patients, dispensing glittering insights upon a sea of darkness. Chekhov said, people don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy. His stories captured the way people moved between their wishes and the cold realities of the world. Even in Siberia there is happiness, says the narrator of "In Exile." Those snowed-in winters of reading would eventually help me become a writer. Even in the coldest, darkest places, there is comfort and joy.
SIEGEL: Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of the recent novel, "Origin," as well as "Crescent" and "Arabian Jazz."
You can find several of Chekhov's stories plus a winter's worth of book recommendations at NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.