One can wonder how anyone who has the slightest interest in books, or the barest curiosity about what the greatest of all novels may be like, could consider not reading War and Peace.
At the same time it is easy to understand why many do not try it. It is too big, too “great,” too famous. There is a kind of backlash from all this effusive praise.
I happened to mention reading the book during a recent interview with a very successful free-lance writer, and he responded, “Oh yeah, that’s the book everybody is supposed to read, but no one does.” He went on to say he has not read it because it’s what everyone expects…he said, “I suppose it’s an act of literary rebellion.”
I would like to take a moment to convince you that you should read Tolstoy’s masterpiece and provide a few thoughts on how to do so. I have just completed it and the experience was priceless.
War and Peace is nearly fourteen hundred pages long. Few readers can read attentively at a steady rate of more than fifty pages an hour. This means the book requires twenty-eight hours to read, at a minimum. More likely, it will take around forty to fifty hours or more.
To read the book well, therefore, you will need a chunk of free time, when you will not be often interrupted and your mind drawn from what you are reading. Setting aside a week of your life to read it is a reasonable idea. The book is worth it.
Take a vacation week with the family, and then, if you are able, pamper yourself with a week alone. Ideally, you should have nothing else to do during that week, besides reading, eating and sleeping. Most readers will not be able to enjoy those ideal conditions, but try to get as close as you can.
Next, throw away any reader’s guides that list all the characters of the book and their relationship to one another. These are crutches that in the long run will only impede the reader.
Reading War and Peace can be compared to moving to a new town or a new job where you know no one. At first, all is confusion; you cannot connect names and faces; you do not know who will be important to you and who will not. Often your first acquaintances turn out to be unimportant, while you only meet the really important people in your life later on—or realize only later on that they are important.
So it is with War and Peace. As you read on, the various groups of characters sort themselves out. The families become meaningful as families, the lovers as lovers, the friends as friends. You cannot know Pierre or Andrew well the first time you meet them, and an introductory note saying they are the two most important male characters will not tell you anything you will not learn yourself and in a better way. To be told in advance Natasha Rostov is the heroine of the book is not much help either. If you do not come to see that as the book progresses, you are blind.
It is, I think, exactly as easy, or as hard, to discern characters and character relationships in War and Peace as it is in real life. Let the book happen to you; do not try to control it. It was written by the master of fiction; by the master. If you are confused at the beginning, you can feel confident that you won’t end up confused. You will know all that anyone can know.
I don’t want to say too much more about how to read War and Peace for fear of saying too much about the book. To tell you the truth, I am envious of you if you have never read it. I would give a good deal to be in your shoes, with a week of uninterrupted time stretching before me, a comfortable chair, a good light, and the book in my lap, open to page one.
I quoted this post almost in its entirety from The Joy of Reading by Charles Van Doren because these exact words prompted me to set aside a week of vacation and read War and Peace and I’m forever grateful.
I know my favorite character, he has helped change my life, will you find yours?