How to Read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in 5 Easy Steps
I don’t remember at what point in my life I first become aware of War and Peace. Nor do I remember when it became synonymous with Mount Everest: a thing few try to tackle and even fewer complete. I can tell you when I decided I was going to be one of those few, and crazy enough, to do it: when I laid eyes upon the gorgeous translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I decided that I would read it on my holiday break, a free ten days when I could sit in my apartment and do nothing but read, read, read. And then I didn’t. I took one look at this behemoth and got scared away. All those names. All those RUSSIAN names! Twelve hundred pages. Every thought I had ever heard, or thought I had heard, went roaring through my head. So, I put it aside for another time, mentally adding it to the Bucket List.
That time came three years later when a colleague decided to start a Read-Along, complete with a timeline. Tackling 1,200 pages over a full year seemed like a much more doable feat. So, at the end of January 2011, I picked it up and began reading; my New Year’s resolution was to finish it. I’m happy to say that on December 25, 2011, I finished it – a Christmas gift to myself.
Now that I’m done, most people’s first question is: “Was it worth it?” followed quickly by: “So, what’s it actually about?” The joke is always “Well, there’s war, and then there’s peace. Then there’s war again and peace again.” This is an overly simplified synopsis, but it does work in a way. Parts of the book reminded me of George Eliot and Jane Austen – a look into the private lives of two families of Russian nobility, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, and one man, Count Bezukhov. This high society storyline is interwoven with fictionalizations of various battles during the Napoleonic Wars. Tolstoy himself joined the army as a non-commissioned officer and later fought in the Crimean War. After his service, he married, had children, and moved to an estate – very reminiscent of the novel itself.
A few recommendations for those on the fence about whether or not they should read what may be the most famous Russian novel:
• Create a timeline. Having manageable chunks helps the task seem less daunting. It also creates self-accountability to reading and finishing;
• Print out the family trees. Having this to reference for the first 100 pages or so helped me remember who was who through the rest of the book;
• Translation is key. This is an open source book. Ensuring that you have a good translation really does augment the reading experience and maintains the integrity of the author and story;
• Buy a copy for your shelf (it’s beautiful!) but read it on your eReader – at four pounds for the book, your biceps will thank you;
• Remember that, at the heart of it, it is a story – don’t get psyched out by its reputation!