The Gulag Archipelago’s first readers

I’m always fascinated by discussions (or really just acknowledgements) of the thing-ness of books, that, apart from being texts, they’re objects with a feel and smell and a personal, cultural, individual history to them.

Although more than three decades have now passed since the winter of 1974, when unbound, hand-typed, samizdat manuscripts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago first began circulating around what used to be the Soviet Union, the emotions they stirred remain today. Usually, readers were given only 24 hours to finish the lengthy manuscript—the first historical account of the Soviet concentration camp system—before it had to be passed on to the next person. That meant spending an entire day and a whole night absorbed in Solzhenitsyn’s sometimes eloquent, sometimes angry prose—not an experience anyone was likely to forget.

Members of that first generation of readers remember who gave the book to them, who else knew about it, and to whom they passed it on. They remember the stories that affected them most—the tales of small children in the camps, or of informers, or of camp guards. They remember what the book felt like—the blurry, mimeographed text, the dog-eared paper, the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night—and with whom they later discussed it.

from How The Gulag Archipelago changed the world, by Anne Applebaum, Slate, 4 August 2008

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