What happens when the page count includes a comma?
How does one begin to write a review of a novel of 1,358 pages? Better question: How does one begin to read a novel of 1,358 pages? I very much enjoy the act of reading. But as with most other facets of my life and personality I am always thinking about the end result. In reading that means I am always thinking about finishing a book, logging the finished title on my list of books read, and choosing the next book. In general I don’t feel bad about this. I read things completely, but sometimes I don’t read things as closely as I should and thus I don’t always retain a whole lot of detail. In fact one of the reasons I decided to review every book that I finish was so that I could look back on my reading list and actually recall what happened in a particular book. But being results driven in reading has also aided me in reading a whole lot more. This isn’t a question of quantity over quality either in choice of material or in the way I read a book. What it does mean is that my slightly OCD-influenced drive to finish whatever I am reading with all due speed helps me spend time with something that I love–books. If it weren’t for that, I would still love books, but I would probably spend way too much time in front of the TV while my paper friends sat neglected and dusty on the shelf.
So, how then does the results-driven reader get through 1,358 pages? This was not without challenge for me. At first I kept looking at where my bookmark was. But 50 or even 100 pages into a book this thick doesn’t look much like progress. It soon became clear I needed a plan for getting through this one. I thought of following Dovegreyreader Scribbles read along which is reading 100 pages a month for a year. Some following that read along are going to read a chapter a day for a year. Both seemed like a good way to break this monster book down. But it didn’t seem right for me. The results-driven me kicked in and decided that that was too much time to have something like this hanging over my head. So I plunged in, hell bent on reading this book in much less than a year.
The good news is that the book actually came to the rescue. Once I started getting into the rhythm of the writing and story lines it soon became clear to me. One shouldn’t approach War and Peace as a book. It is more like your favorite TV drama or mini-series, or, dare I say, soap opera. You enjoy the moment. The setting, the costumes, the characters interacting. You enjoy the arc of the mini story lines, and you don’t mind that it goes on and on and on, seemingly without end. It allowed me to enjoy the process and think less about the end.
A note about spoilers
Just as I have with my previously posted graphic summaries, I do list below what could be considered a spoiler or two. But the arc of this book is so sprawling, the characters so many, and the page count so high, that even if you know what happens, I think it would be hard to ruin it for someone who hasn’t read it. Plus my spoilers aren’t too spoily.
If it took me this three paragraphs just to express my thoughts on how I read the book, how long do you think it would take me outline the story? You don’t want to know. And I don’t want to try. It would probably also take me longer to do that then it did to read the book. So you get a bulleted list:
- Begins in Russia in July 1805
- Ends in about 1820
- The war bits relate to the campaigns in the Napoleonic Wars in which Russia was involved.
- The peace bits tell the story of a circle of titled and not-so titled upper class Russians in Petersburg and Moscow.
- There are plenty of peace bits (chapters, sections, etc.) with parties, marital intrigue, romance, etc., but to me it was all background. The impact of the wars on the characters and their families spills over into all of the peace bits.
- Lots of inappropriate and typical upper class behavior: too young girls being paired off with too old men; marriage for dynastic and financial reasons; overspending, gambling debts; and other such luxuriously tragic goings on.
- A relatively happy ending. Like an Austen you can kind of see the marriages coming down the pike, and they do come together in the end.
- A few of the deaths are surprising, but given the vast scope of the novel they are sometimes, I think purposely, anticlimactic.
In the process one learns about:
- Napoleon and his quest for world domination. At one point in my undergraduate days I knew the rough outline of Napoleon’s romp through Europe and Africa. War and Peace helped refresh some of that and, more importantly, prompted me to go back and skim the history of that time to reacquaint myself with the “facts”.
- The nature of war which is so often about important people playing chess with human pawns. I think Tolstoy would have problems with the premise of this gross simplification but I think it still rings true and is very evident in his book.
- Human life and death, triumph and sorrow, things that are earth-shattering at the moment, are blips on the map of human history. Just imagine if Tolstoy put it in the context of geological time.
- Historians, on both the winning and losing sides, create heroes. Rarely–at least in this period, but one could argue even into our own day–are commanders and tacticians as brilliant as they are made out to be. Chance and dumb luck have much to do with success on the battle field.
What War and Peace isn’t
A paean to the art of war. There is certainly much description of military maneuvers and glory seeking commanders and soldiers. But the overall feeling I got from Tolstoy was that there wasn’t much glorious about it. In fact, there were times when I was caught up in the action, and like a 13-year old straight boy, was filled with the shoot ’em up thirst for a glorious victory. But I don’t think there was one instance where Tolstoy gives us a moment of pure militaristic climax. One of the more compelling scenes in the book is when Nikolay Rostov is proving his bravery and leading the charge against the enemy. Just as the reader reaches a peak of excitement over Rostov’s impending triumph, Rostov himself sees the face of his “enemy” and has an immediate crisis of confidence and conscience.
- I enjoyed reading this book.
- It is no doubt a masterpiece, but it is also an enjoyable read.
- I think there are probably at least 300 pages that could be chopped out.
- When I had about 60 pages to go all I could think was “enough already, just end it”
- I could have done without the non-fictional, philosophical disquisition that Tolstoy includes in the Epilogue. In a different mood I would find it very interesting, but as the final 30 pages out of 1,358, it seemed like punishing someone for doing a good deed.
- I am very glad to have finally finished War and Peace. Probably the one title in all literature that reigns as most intimidating. Okay, I take it back, I think that distinction should belong to Ulysses.
And now I can pursue the read-a-thon without this one hanging over my head. Hoo. Ray.