with Greta Matzner-Gore and Jeff Mezzocchi
The North American Dostoevsky Society stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our statement can be read here.
Rare book seller and high school teacher Jeff Mezzocchi has spent the past 10 years compiling a Crime and Punishment “bookshelf”—a collection of nineteenth-century works of philosophy, science, and fiction that form the novel’s intellectual backdrop. He has generously agreed to share his catalogue of first editions with our readers. You can access it here!
This week Greta Matzner-Gore sits down with Jeff to discuss his work.
GMG:You have been teaching Crime and Punishment to high school students for about 12 years. What inspired you to start teaching it? What keeps you coming back to it again and again?
JM: I inherited a class on literature of crime and punishment, which included Dostoevsky’s novel as part of the course. I then switched schools after a couple years and decided to create my own class in 19th-century Russian Literature which would include Crime and Punishment. What I love about the novel (and teaching it to teenagers) is just how relevant it is to our lives. Yes, none of us has killed a pawnbroker, but we all do things that push boundaries (teenagers are especially well equipped to do this!). And we struggle ferreting out our conscious reasons atop our unconscious motives. Raskolnikov’s journey reveals that struggle in a hyperbolic way, and high school students get it. They know what it is like to choose, to act, and they are aware that the reasons and motives behind those choices are not always clear, or singular. I find so much joy in discussing the book with young adults about to head off to college.
GMG: You not only teach Crime and Punishment; you teach its intellectual context as well. In one of our email exchanges, for example, you mentioned that you discuss Feuerbach (!) with your students. What, in your opinion, is the most important philosophical background that students need in order to understand the novel? And how do you introduce this material to students who have little experience with philosophy?
JM: By far, the most important philosophical background for students is understanding the ideas in Chernyshevsky’s works. I have my students read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for their summer assignment, and then as the year begins, we dive into excerpts from Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? I work with them on understanding some of the basics of philosophy: general distinctions in ontology (materialism and idealism), epistemology (rationalism and empiricism and, later, scientific rationalism), ethics (deontology and teleology). We read some excerpts from Plato’s Republic (the divided line and the allegory of the cave are particularly helpful to get a grasp on the language and distinctions between perspectives). This helps build a working vocabulary as we dig deeper into Chernyshevsky’s emphasis on positivism and rational egoism, his materialism, scientific rationalism, and utilitarianism. I actually have my students complete a project rooted in Chernyshevsky’s philosophy where they identify a problem in our world that creates suffering. Based on rational egoism, they must reshape public policy so that they eliminate the suffering, freeing people to pursue what is advantageous, allowing everyone to move towards happiness. Once they seem fully comfortable engaging with Chernyshevsky and his ideas, we pivot to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. It is a dense few months, but as we build through that sequence of texts, the students grow not only in their understanding but in their confidence. Class discussions become dynamic and engaging, and oftentimes I can sit back and just take notes on what my students say.
GMG: About 10 years ago, you started collecting (mostly) first editions of nineteenth-century works of philosophy, science, and fiction that Dostoevsky knew well. What inspired you to embark on this new project?
JM: Since I had been collecting and selling rare books in philosophy and teaching philosophy for a number of years already, I was noticing how much the publication history of books by thinkers like Nietzsche had such a profound impact on his ideas. I was realizing how narrow it was to isolate the thinker and writer from the context in which s/he lived. I suddenly began to see the books I read and taught in an entirely new light. As I shifted my own teaching a bit towards literature and the intersection of literature and philosophy, I became more and more interested in the texts behind those texts. I think I first noticed the footnote referencing Feuerbach in Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? when I was designing a class on 19th c. Russian Literature. I thought to myself, why not get a first edition copy? And I did. Subsequently, that same year as my students were reading Notes from Underground, I noticed more acutely the reference to Henry Thomas Buckle and his book History of Civilization in England. As the years went on, I kept digging into the footnotes of Crime and Punishment, reading and studying many of the books directly and indirectly referenced-–thinkers like Fourier and his Phalanstery, Quetelet’s statistical analysis of human behavior, even the brief mention of the specific translation of the Qur’an. I started to wonder what a bookshelf in Raskolnikov’s apartment might look like. So, I slowly started acquiring those books when I came across them. At a certain point I realized this could make for an interesting catalogue, if not for others, certainly for myself! In all honesty, I thought the idea was so quirky and niche, that no one except me would be interested in it. I have seen many rare book catalogues over the years, but never one that focused on a single novel. I almost talked myself out of it! But I am so glad I didn’t. I have been amazed by the response to my work, from both academics and booksellers alike! I tend to think of my bookselling and my teaching as separate vocations, but after this, I am wondering if maybe I can find more ways to let each inform the other.
GMG: How has compiling the Crime and Punishment bookshelf changed the way you read the novel? How has it changed the way you teach the novel?
JM: This is a great question, one I am curious about myself! Since I just released the catalogue, I am still wondering how it might fit into my teaching. Of course, over the years, I have been pointing students to the footnotes in the novel. They really do well to establish the larger context. But I am finding myself talking more about those footnotes, especially since writing the catalogue allowed me to dig deeper into the many layers of the text.
GMG: The bookshelf’s catalogue is much more than a list of first editions: it includes summaries of the books you have collected, descriptions of their broader cultural significance, and explanations of their relevance to Crime and Punishment. Do you show the catalogue to your students? Could the catalogue be used as an educational tool, and if so, how would you recommend using it?
JM: Related to your last question, I do think the catalogue could be a useful tool for students. As I wrote it, I struggled finding that line between bibliophile and educator. At times I found I would write too much about the ideas in the book, and each time I added more, more was necessary. So finding that place where just enough explanation was given but not too much was a real challenge. In the end, I feel like I found that spot where someone reading it either as a book collector or someone wanting to learn more about the background to Crime and Punishment would be satisfied. I have not yet shared it with my own students. Obviously the catalogue is a tool for selling books, so I wouldn’t want to promote my bookshop in my classroom. But I consider printing a version without prices as a classroom resource. I also wonder if a longer version could be written, where I expand on the background, making it more of an annotated bibliography of sorts. I am not sure. But I must say, it has been quite rewarding to have people like you, leading experts and scholars on Dostoevsky, find interest in my work.
Jeff Mezzocchi has been teaching high school philosophy and literature for more than 25 years, and slowly growing a small rare bookshop for about 10 years, mostly focusing on first and rare editions in philosophy, but also those places where philosophy meets literature (like Dostoevsky!). He earned his BA from Fairfield University in English and Religious Studies, his first MA in Philosophy from San Diego State University, and a second MA in Religious Studies from University of San Francisco. He currently lives in San Diego with his wife and three kids. You can learn more about his Eternal Return Antiquarian Bookshop at https://www.eternalreturnbookshop.com/.
Greta Matzner-Gore is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California. Her first book, Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form: Suspense, Closure, Minor Characters, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2020.