Matthew Yglesias points to a Facebook study of the most popular books in college. He notes that readers who cite Crime and Punishment (#98) had SAT scores 200 points higher than readers who cite Anna Karenina (#84). I can’t make head or tail out of the study itself, but Yglesias wonders why there would be this gap between two novels that “would seem to me to appeal to more-or-less the same audience.”

There’s a deep answer and a simple answer to this. The deep answer is that readers of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are not the same audience and never have been — that Tolstoy’s full-bodied portrait of life as it is actually lived stands in marked contrast with Dostoyesky’s exploration of people who find themselves drawn to extreme acts of social and moral transgression. When I was young enough to have heated conversations at the campus bar on such matters, it was invariably the case that a Tolstoy lover really disliked Dostoyesky, and that a Dostoyevsky lover had a certain amount of scorn for Tolstoy. So perhaps an argument can be made that Dostoyevsky’s more emotionally demanding work is more alluring to a more restless and probing intelligence. (Which was I? Sorry — as I recall, I loved both writers equally, though it was The Brothers Karamazov rather than Crime and Punishment and War and Peace rather than Anna Karenina that meant the most to me. And I fear I didn’t do especially well on my SATs anyway.)

But let’s go for the simpler answer: Anna Karenina was the May 2004 selection of the Oprah Book Club selection, and what it gained in mass sales it probably lost in SAT selectivity. Crime and Punishment hasn’t yet been favored by Barack Obama’s savior, nor has any other Dostoyesky work. (It has, however, been made into a television movie starring Patrick Dempsey as Raskolnikov. That’s right. McDreamy from Gray’s Anatomy took an axe to the pawnbroker’s head. No wonder you never saw it.)

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