war and peace and everything

I finished reading War and Peace on Tuesday (that’s more or less an entire year spent reading it). I then spent Tuesday night and the greater part of Wednesday alternately wondering how I was going to blog about it, and procrastinating from thinking about how to blog about it.

I typed out some notes and ideas on Tuesday that I could use as a starting point, or perhaps form into some sort of outline. But the more I thought about it on Wednesday, the more I felt like there was no real point in writing anything about something for which so much has already been written.

Yet, at the same time, I felt like there was so much that I wanted to write about.

There are a lot of other, more qualified people you could go to for an in-depth analysis of the prose, characters and events of War and Peace, so I will resist getting into it here. I feel like the one unique thing that I can add to the extensive, far-reaching discussion of this book is my own experience of it.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned in a previous post somewhere that there is a lot of content dedicated to the theory of war, and to various historical events, and that a lot of it felt like it was quite over my head. Indeed, I think one of the reasons I took so long to finish W&P was because I had to reread a lot of these parts, and had to really slow down and make an effort to understand what Tolstoy was writing about.

There were even parts of the book in which I wondered how essential this scene or this event is for the overall story. That’s why there are abridged versions, right? But even the thought of an abridged version makes me shudder — no matter how carefully it might be done, it still seems like an insult to the original. And, in the end, I couldn’t imagine having any part of it left out.

Even so, I’ve seen comments on forums about how all the historical details and philosophical parts are a bit dry, and hinder the flow of the story. And I’ve seen it said that there was so much about rich families and their soirees and balls and matchmaking that some readers had a hard time empathising with the main characters. But if any of these things were changed, it just wouldn’t be the same!

Not meaning to offend anyone, but I sort of think that people who don’t like the history and philosophy in W&P, and people who cannot empathise with the main characters — these people must have something lacking or closed off in their approach to the book. In order to get the most out of it, you need to be open to receiving everything it is offering. 

From my previous experience with Tolstoy (by which I mean reading Anna Karenina), I was expecting W&P to be insightful and thought-provoking. I wanted to learn and ponder and be surprised by what I discovered — and I got all of that. To read W&P without wanting to learn about the historical context, and only expecting a clear story with stereotypically endearing characters is, to me, quite absurd. It would be like going on a trip to another city or country, and only wanting to visit the typical tourist attractions and landmarks while turning away from hidden gems, and not observing or speaking to locals to learn something of their lives.

Of course, not everyone wants to visit the same places and see the same things, and that’s ok. The problem only arises if you go to a city renowned for museums and galleries, and then complain why there aren’t more theatres and festivals. If you dislike museums and want theatres instead, perhaps this or that other city would be better suited to you.

Side note: Something else I noticed while reading W&P was that Tolstoy seems to have quite the penchant for analogies. More than a few times I found myself reading through long paragraphs of philosophical reasoning, wondering if I’m really understanding all that he is saying — and then he brings in some analogy that makes it so clear and simple. This is especially noticeable in the epilogue, where he writes extensively about freedoms, necessity, and the reasons for war.

Despite the high expectations I had prior to reading W&P, I think it exceeded these expectations, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it went outside of these expectations. I expected to learn and think and ponder; and I found a book that made me feel like I was actively searching for truth, and straining my every molecule to finding some sort of enlightenment.

One thing that I thought W&P was very good at was making other things seem trivial or trifling, but in a way that was different to other books. Other books, such as Grapes of Wrath or Kite Runner, might show people from a different place or time, and show you the misfortunes of these people. So by reading these books, you might feel that your problems are nothing compared to those misfortunes, and you might feel grateful that you aren’t experiencing them. But W&P took a different approach, revealing truth not by contrast but by simply elucidating false perspective.

And I think it’s mostly for this reason that it’s going be so hard to decide what to read next. A lot of books will seem too light-hearted or trivial compared to War and Peace, and others will seem pretentious and perhaps even a bit pompous. Either way, I don’t think I’ll be starting another book any time soon. Maybe I’ll just reread a few passages from War and Peace. Despite the enormity of the book, I can understand why people read it over and over again.

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