Bookish Thoughts are essays where I get personal about books that have had a strong impact on my life. They’re not reviews, just ruminations.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
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War and Peace is a novel that has become almost a punchline; it’s used to indicate the tedious and impossible, the most herculean of reading efforts. It’s a doorstop of a book, a Pandora’s box containing decades of historical events, a large cast of characters, and (yes, sometimes boring) meditations on history and civilization.
And yet, this March I answered the call set forth by the journal A Public Space, inviting readers to immerse themselves in War and Peace over the course of three months. Fifteen pages a day (give or take), with daily posts on Twitter and Instagram under the hashtag #TolstoyTogether. The journey would be facilitated by novelist Yiyun Li. I had a copy (as many of us do who fully intend to read this novel “one day”), and figured I’d give it a try.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to finish, or even get very far. I wasn’t facing an excess of free time during quarantine: I was lucky to still have work as a freelance translator and indexer, and now I also had two house-bound primary-school-age kids to help guide through some semblance of a daily routine.
But somewhere within the first week of reading, my brain decided that this was a good daily mental health break, and I kept coming back to Tolstoy at the end of each day. I especially kept coming back to the community that started to blossom around the #TolstoyTogether tag; my Twitter account was fairly new at the time, but soon enough I started making friends, and engaging in some of the best literary conversations I’d had since leaving academia several years ago.
What was the secret? Why did I persevere? I think one important aspect was the daily limit. Even when I wanted to read ahead, I was strict about sticking to the chapters assigned for that specific day. This kept me interested in continuing, and helped avoid burnout; it’s a trick I’m sure to use moving forward when I want to tackle longer works.
The second element was, of course, the amazing group of people I got to chat with every single day. The reason I had failed at previous book clubs was that there was usually a date for finishing the read, and only then would any meaningful discussion start. The #TolstoyTogether crew communicated after each day’s reading: impressions, frustrations, analyses, links to art and music. We’ve had members with a wide variety of linguistic and historical expertise to help us through some of the more baffling passages. And, of course, there were the requisite cat pictures (I may have contributed a few of these myself).
And here we are, at the end of this three-month journey. For me, this has meant going from the snow and ice storms of early spring in Quebec, to the awakening of the fragrant lilac bush outside my living room window. For the world, these months have shown us that some of the societal structures we have come to rely on, or even expect, can fall apart when faced with a pandemic of epic proportions; and that other structures should indeed come crashing down for their complicity or apathy in the face of massive, ongoing racial injustice. Through all this, War and Peace has been a mirror of a novel, showing us the best and worst of humanity in times of social and political upheaval.
So I encourage others to give this novel a try. If you’re daunted by the page count (around 1200 pages), keep in mind that it’s no longer than any one volume in a typical fantasy series. For example, Brandon Sanderson’s brilliant Stormlight Archive series, which is about to see its fourth volume out of ten published, runs at 1000+ pages per book. If you’re worried about remembering all those character names, know that Tolstoy was meticulous about giving each person a distinguishing feature; so, while you might not remember the name of a certain “little princess,” you will know her by the little mustache she sports in every one of her scenes.
And then there’s the snark:
Because of the self-assurance with which he spoke, no one could make out whether what he had said was very clever or very stupid.
Oh, the snark:
he at once addressed his daughter in that careless tone of habitual tenderness which is adopted by parents who have been affectionate with their children since childhood, but which Prince Vassily only approximated by means of imitating other parents.
Tolstoy’s observations on society alone are worth plodding through the occasionally obscure beekeeping allegories, or his attempts at describing history by way of algebra. In the end, War and Peace is as chaotic and messy as individual human lives and the general cycles of history are, and is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century.
So go find some bookish friends, set up a daily page limit, and go dancing with Natasha, Pierre, and Andrei across the ballrooms and battlefields of Russia.