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When I started reading War and Peace, I only had two reasons. The first had to do with superstition. A few years before, I’d been reading Anna Karenina when I had one of those creative bursts a writer doesn’t fully appreciate until it’s over. Then, after the muse had retreated, I began to entertain various gambits: combining ginseng and Red Bull; downing cups of strong coffee (with handfuls of antacids); reading books about creativity; ordering illegal brain stimulants on the Internet; and finally, embarking on War and Peace, a book nearly as heavy as my asthmatic cat, at around 1400 pages. Tolstoy, I’d decided, was my magic feather.
My other reason was less complicated. War and Peace is like the Mount Everest of books. I wanted to be able to say I’d read it.
As it turns out, Tolstoy is not my magic feather. Alas. But the experience of reading War and Peace is worthwhile, and for more than just the bragging rights:
1. It’s Deep. Ultimately, War and Peace is a 1400 page quarrel between a brilliant, complicated man and some of mankind’s most difficult questions: What are we to make of history? Do men have free will? What is power? And to use his words, “How is it that millions of people commit joint crimes, wars, killings, and so on?”
I won’t presume to summarize Tolstoy’s conclusions, since he describes the book as “what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed,” and since there are quite a few philosophical passages in the epilogue (where he gets his most abstract) that I’m sure I don’t quite grasp despite having read them aloud to my cat. Still, my understanding of history, human nature, and the meaning of life (if one can type that without feeling totally ridiculous) has been enhanced by reading this book.
2. It’s Easy Reading. Sure, it’s not People magazine, but Tolstoy guides the reader with color, clarity, and more metaphors than you can shake a stick at. The book’s major challenge is its size.
3. It’s Freaking Huge. Reading War and Peace can feel like driving an old car on the Interstate while shiny new vehicles speed past. But in our overwhelming world—where every minute presents you with fifteen distractions, where the television, cell phone, and six social networks compete for your attention—it is bracing (and rewarding) to submit to a book that demands as much sustained engagement as War and Peace does. A chronic reader-of-multiple-books-at-once, it was difficult for me not to follow my interests into the pages of another book. But I feared that doing so would cause me to lose the thread of Tolstoy’s narrative (or at least lose track of all those Russian names) so I stuck with it. I confess to some moments of weakness: once, when my bookmark fell out, and I looked at that huge sheaf of almost-translucent pages divided by Roman numerals that go far beyond my comprehension of Roman numerals, and thought, “Oh, to hell with it;” and again, when I had to carry that monster onto a plane. But it was worth it in the end, not only for what the book can teach a writer, but for the discipline it requires.
4. It Has a Refreshingly Authentic Plot. Criticized by Henry James as a “large loose baggy monster,” the book is designed with few of the hooks and sensational plot lines that make much of contemporary fiction both irresistibly readable and somehow false. The book has a plot, but it isn’t entirely driven by it. There is romance, betrayal, revenge, death, and coincidence, but there is a lot of other stuff in between, just as there is in life, and the plot seems always to derive from the natural development of character.
5. It’ll Cure Your Insomnia. I really enjoyed this book. But that didn’t stop me from falling asleep every fifty pages or so.
6. Tolstoy Can Write. I’ve met people who claim to hate Tolstoy for various reasons, including his personal, religious and political views. Others balk at his rosy-cheeked ladies and gleeful young men, all of them chasing foxes and bursting into tears and demanding duels. But his abilities with sentences and imagery can’t be argued. He writes with such furious engagement and richness of detail that War and Peace is more like life than art. As Isaac Babel put it, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” For a writer steeped in the stoicism and minimalism that dominates much of contemporary fiction, Tolstoy can be eye-opening.
7. You Get to Know a Famous Guy. Not only is Tolstoy’s personality evident in the way as he presents his characters, but his own voice consistently overtakes the book, like that of a wise, funny, overbearing, cantankerous grandfather. And isn’t this the real miracle of literature? That we can know the mind of a brilliant and complicated writer who was found dead on a cot in a remote railway station in 1910?
8. It’s Timely. After detailing the French invasion of Moscow, Tolstoy shows the perils of occupation, and explains why an insurgency will always wear its enemy down given time enough. He isn’t the only one to make this observation, but it’s sobering to come across it in the context of a war so distant in time and place, and to watch as the invading French army slowly succumbs to poor leadership, a sustained Russian refusal to cooperate, roving bands of enemy combatants, and the bitter winter.
The book also captures, in a way I’ve never seen it, the excitement and allure of war. Tolstoy’s soldiers are so full of life and love of their homeland that even the frigid weather doesn’t get them down. They sing to distract themselves from the cold, and lie silently together, looking at the stars which are “now flaring up, now vanishing, now trembling, were busy whispering something gladsome and mysterious to one another.” Still, Tolstoy doesn’t romanticize war—he explains that these soldiers are so cheerful because “all the physically or morally weak had long since been left behind,” and he kills off two of the book’s most loveable characters, one by execution, the other by long-festering wound.
9. When You’re Finished, You Can Write a Really Long Blog About It. I’m not saying you should. In fact, you should probably restrain yourself. I’m just saying you could.