I have always loved browsing through bookcases--I can even become mesmerized staring at my own bookcase. Growing up, I spent a lot of time gazing into my grandfather's bookcases and one book in particular impressed me as being the most gloomy book ever written. Dead Souls isn't exactly a cheerful title, and the author's name, Gogol, reminded me of Golgotha and the Stations of the Cross, and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary and All Souls' Day and purgatory and other dismal things. But then someone told me that Dead Souls is hilarious, which was a relief, for some reason.
So I added it to my list for the fifty classics project, and it's not as hilarious as everybody says, but neither is it gloomy. It's set in Russia, in the early part of the 19th century. Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov arrives in a small town, accompanied by his valet and coachman. Serfs were counted at infrequent intervals by a census taker, and their owners were taxed for them. Imagine how vexing to have your serfs die on you before the next census and to have to pay taxes on so-called dead souls! And here's Chichikov to the rescue, kindly offering to buy up the dead souls and relieve their former owners of the tax burden.
The landowners, although they can't resist unburdening themselves of their dead souls, are suspicious, and Chichikov has some sticky times, not helped by the intemperate habits of his servants. Of course, he is running a scam and plans to use his acquired dead souls to procure a large loan for himself.
I believe Gogol intended this book to be a general denouncement of Russians, and there are plenty of greedy, stupid, and corrupt characters, and digs at the incredibly top-heavy Russian civil service institution. What I found the most interesting was the glimpses into Russian middle class domestic life, and manners although this is a very man-centered book, with few female characters. I think this is the sort of book you need to read twice in order to pick up everything you missed on your first go-round. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but Dead Souls is probably a good choice if you've decided to enhance your exposure to Russian literature and don't know where to start.