Reading by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Review

the text "reading written by anton chekhov" written next to the portrait of anton chekhov

Reading means a lot! A whole lot! Read, and you’ll see at once how sharply your horizons change. And you can get hold of books anywhere.

This excerpt from Chekhov’s short story Reading is a hilarious take on reading and people’s perception about this habit. The story is one of his earlier works, published in 1884. It is also available as part of a short story collection called Fifty Two stories published by Alfred A. Knopf, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Reading: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story opens in a government office where Impresario Galamidov and bureau chief Semipalatov are discussing the art and beauty of Russian actresses. 

Semipalatov seems to be smitten by one particular young actress and is virtually speechless when he is interrupted by the office clerk, Merdyaev, to sign some official documents. Put off by the sudden interruption, he instead starts ridiculing the ignorance of this man.

You said we no longer have any Gogolian types… But here you see! Isn’t he one? Scruffy, out at the elbows, and look how he writes! Illiterate, like a cobbler! Just look!

Galamidov, taking a quick look at those papers, concludes that Merdyaev does not read much and suggests he picks up the habit to do so. After all, books are easy to get and open horizons. 

He even offered to bring some to the office, which he did the next day. Merdyaev was handed a book to read; he was anxious from the very beginning.

His crossed eyes shifted anxiously and seemed to be looking for help from the objects around him.

The old office accountant Budylda tried to console him and offered some friendly advice regarding this Semipalatov mandated reading business. He advised that the clerk read just about enough to keep the chief off his back but warned against the repercussions of much involvement in the clever stuff.

Read a little, and then, God grant, he will forget, and you can drop it. Don’t be afraid. And above all, Don’t get involved in it… Read but don’t get involved in this clever stuff.

Merdyavev tried and tried but couldn’t make anything of it. On an encounter with the chief one day, he froze upon being asked to give a synopsis of what he had read. 

The chief was not impressed and implored him to re-read other office folks to pick up books and begin reading. Almost everyone went along with the request except for the accountant, Buldylda. He was having none of it.

No, excuse me, Your Excellency, I’d sooner take my retirement. I know what comes of some of these critiques and writings. On account of them, my older grandson calls his own mother a fool right to her face and gulps milk all through Lent. Excuse me sir!

After repeated tries of making sense of the book given to Merdyaev, feeling helpless, the accountant asked to put in a request to the chief on his behalf to excuse him from reading.

I’ll pray to God eternally for you! Ask his excellency to excuse me… I can’t read. I read day and night, don’t sleep, don’t eat… My wife’s worn out from reading aloud to me, but , God, strike me dead, I understand nothing! Do me this great service!

Budylda tried doing that multiple times, but it just didn’t work. Semipalatov continued reproaching the staff for their ignorance until one fine day, Merdyaev showed up in the office, completely distraught, sobbing and asking for an apology for making counterfeit money and throwing a baby down a well.

Semipalatov, confused, asked Budylda about such behavior and was told that the reading drove him insane.

Merdyaev recovered but not completely. And to this day, he trembles and turns away from the sight of books.

Reading: Review and My Thoughts

The story is an absolute delight. A story on reading itself, how fascinating!

I loved every character in the story, Semipalatov for his relentless pursuit of making his staff more art-friendly, and Budylda for his wisdom in doing and advising others to do just the opposite of that. 

Merdyaev, for being the scared rabbit who went through hell and high water to avoid reading and finally freeing the whole office of the curse of reading. If not for him, their office would still be eventful. It would still have life.

If I were to pick up my favorite quote from the story, it would have to be Galamidov saying:

Reading means a lot! A whole lot! Read, and you’ll see at once how sharply your horizons change. And you can get hold of books anywhere.

I am sure you have read this or heard this in some form or the other from someone in your life. Books are a whole new world and a perfect fit for a creature you seldom see at parties. When you do, in a corner glued to the only person they know from the lot or their cellphones, pretending to monitor social media feeds while actually scrolling through stories. 

More often than not, this creature, when awake, is found cuddling books when not reading them.

You might be that creature, and his story seems to be dedicated to you.

To me, it felt like Chekhov speaking to his readers, donning Galamidov’s form in the story. Still, unlike Semapalatov’s staff, we are not complaining. 

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