Poly Talks Books: Joel Lovell

Poly Talks Books

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


What’s the best book you’ve read in quarantine?

I finally finished The Brothers Karamazov.


What’s next on your reading list? 

I’m reading The Idiot, also by Dostoevsky, right now. The big difference is that it’s a lot more gripping early on than The Brothers Karamazov

I’ve also been reading a book by [psychologist] Carl Jung called The Archetype and the Collective Unconscious. I’ve noticed a lot of connections between his work and the characters of Dostoevsky. 


You said that Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is the book you wish you’d written. Since at this point you’re practically a Dostoevsky expert, why, of all the Dostoevsky you’ve read, is that the one you wish you’d written? 

It was the most perspective-flipping. It tore the ground up from under me. A lot of the thoughts that you and I have he makes very explicit. Instead of thoughts being internal to the characters, like yours or mine might be, they just say what they’re thinking. When Dostoevsky does that, it’s often pretty confusing, and I can’t always wrap my head around it. 

But once I got used to that style, I realized that Notes from Underground is centered on the conflict between what you want to do and what you actually end up doing. Once I understood that, it completely changed the way I thought about myself and the things I was doing. And it’s what sparked the writing that I read at Coffeehouse earlier this year. 


You’ve said you don’t like the Harry Potter books, and of course I need to know why! 

Well, 50% of my dislike is probably me exaggerating how much I don’t like it. And I will say I do enjoy the lore in it. I might ask questions about why the Elder Wand is so powerful, for example. But I find the writing very uninteresting. I would much rather read Robert Louis Stevenson in Jekyll and Hyde, for example; his writing is so much more compelling to me. 


When I asked about books you don’t like that other people do, you answered, “some people like 1984 more than Brave New World. I completely disagree.” Why?

One of the things is that 1984 is – regarding the philosophy of newspeak, everything is given to you. The whole point is stated and explained. In Brave New World, the philosophical jewel of it is hidden in the interaction between the characters and their dialogue. I just don’t get that in 1984. It’s a lot more explicit. I think things with a clear political agenda are almost always less interesting. 

One of the things when I’m sitting down to write is that it’s difficult for me to write anything if I know where it’s going. I’ve heard something said to the effect of “if you start art with an end in mind, it’s propaganda.” I think you could call 1984 propaganda, although obviously Orwell is right. But that’s why I like Dostoevsky’s work; his books are a journey, and he’s trying to compare ways of being or modes of living that aren’t obvious to him when he starts the book. 


So, I know that Dostoevsky is coming to your dream Socratic Seminar. Who else?

I’ve looked up whether Carl Jung had anything to say about Dostoevsky, but couldn’t find anything, which was disappointing. So I’d invite him, because I want to know what he thinks! Nietzsche also said that Dostoevsky is the only philosopher he had something to learn from, which is quite a statement coming from Nietzsche, so I’d want him there too.

I’m also curious about Tolstoy. I do find it interesting that despite Dostoevsky and Tolsoy being so near to each other, they didn’t interact much. So I’d want to bring them together! 


What childhood book do you keep coming back to? 

Romeo and Juliet. I read it first in 7th grade, and it’s just such a potent tragedy. It’s kind of breathtaking when you think about it. It’s hard to say more than that.


Alright, one last question: if you could recommend one book to everyone, what would it be?

Crime and Punishment. I feel like anybody could get into it and love it.