Let’s talk about big books. Big books, especially classics, can be the most meaningful experiences in reading, forming lasting impressions. But I have to admit, I have not always felt that way. There was a time when page number and book size intimidated me but no more! I give 2 books credit for changing my perspective; War and Peace and Gone With the Wind, both for different reasons.
So let’s jump right into some of my thoughts and feelings for the renowned and infamous, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
He [Prince Ippolit] spoke with such self-confidence that his hearers could not be sure whether what he said was very witty or very stupid.
I pondered this passage and asked myself several times the same thing, am I very witty or possibly very stupid for reading this book? As the author of the book, I wondered the same about Tolstoy. War and Peace was never on my TBR for any time in my life. However, I gave in to some positive peer pressure to join a buddy read group on bookstagram (and might I add an enticing cover because who doesn’t buy pretty books)?
We set a reasonable schedule, adjusting when necessary since this epic literary giant is not a book you will find yourself sprinting through, or at least we didn’t and wisely adopted a marathon pace.
War and Peace has a long cast of characters (about 559) with many diminutives and nicknames and it took a good chunk of Book One to get them straight in my mind. I asked myself so many times, “is this the same person, who are they related to, what family are they from,” et cetera et cetera, I think you catch my drift. (Note: this is one of the books on the list of The Great American Read featured on PBS).
The principal characters from prominent families include the Rostóvs (Count Níkolai and sister Natásha), the Bolkónskys (Prince Andréi and sister Princess Márya), the Kurágans (Princess Eléna and heathen brother, Prince Ánatole) and of course, Pierre Bezúkhov, who becomes a Count after his father’s death.
We follow these characters for approximately 15 years, when they are young people with musings about what they will do with their lives, what parties and social events they will attend, who they promised to marry as youngsters versus who they become. From 1805 to 1820 their lives and expectations are affected and shaped by social proprieties in various degrees along with the events leading up to and during the times of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion on Russia. With historical aspects and persons such as Alexander I, Catherine II the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and, yes, you guessed it, a host of many characters, War and Peace takes you on a journey unlike any other I’d be on in my classic reading.
“Patience and time are my warriors, my champions.” ~ Kutuzov, Commander in Chief
Apropos advice found in this quote from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It takes much patience and time to read this book and at just over 1300+ pages, I feel I can read anything.
What I did like:
- The historical aspects of this book are fascinating, the research to create the background is intrgiuing. Tolstoy was a soldier in the Crimean War so I’m sure his experience served him well in penning the war portions. I have more thoughts but let’s stick to the positive. Not remembering much about the Napoleonic Wars from history class or the invasion of Russia by the French army in the 1800s did at times pique my interest. One of my favorite genres is historical fiction so this was an appealing aspect of the book and some motivation to keep reading.
- Character development – the principal characters in the book grow and mature as the story progressed. Tolstoy pulls you into the thoughts, feelings and emotions of the main characters. We see Andréi and Pierre in various parts of the book try to come to terms with life; how to find happiness, how and can you live a purposeful life? Does duty negate these endeavors, can a person be happy and find love in their marriage instead of deceit, malice and manipulation? How can you use your life to help others instead of living selfishly? I began to feel a kinship with many of the characters including Pierre and Márya. Their sincerity, feelings and capacity for compassion are memorable. Well once I figured out who’s who of course (lol). There were many times in Book 2 I really could not stop reading. I was waiting to see how their lives would turn out.
- There are some well penned passages, making this a highly quotable and discussion worthy book.
“There is nothing certain, nothing at all except the unimportance of everything I understand, and the greatness of something incomprehensible but all-important.”
“Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.”
“It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his (Pierre) life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in or out, but went on turning uselessly in the same place.”
“All we can know is that we know nothing. And that’s the height of human wisdom.”
“I should not have believed anyone who told me that I was capable of such love. It is not at all the same feeling that I knew in the past. The whole world is now for me divided into two halves: one half is she, and there all is joy, hope, light; the other half is everything where she is not, and there all is gloom and darkness…”
Could we not talk about these in the context of the story or on their own merit alone? As I look back at my copy of the book, there are page flags and notes of paper in various places. I believe one more thing I have regrets about as I look back at War and Peace, is annotating, I think I should have. See my musings on annotations here.
What I didn’t like:
- Why were there so MANY characters? Some of the war parts were too long most of the time. I got tired of reading and wanted to skip a lot of it, but there was one scene early in the book where Kutuzov falls asleep during one of the war strategy meetings. I almost fell out of my chair laughing.
- There were some parts that dragged forever. Maybe that’s what Tolstoy was trying to help us understand, war is long and pointless?
A summary of each part:
- Book 1- slow and steady
- Book 2- Things get interesting (probably my favorite part of the whole book)
- Book 3- slow and sometimes interesting
- Book 4- boring until you get back to the main characters
- Epilogue – wasted opportunity – read Part 1 ONLY- 🛑 STOP HERE -don’t read any of Part 2 (I wanted to scream out loud in misery and almost gauged my eyes out except I need them to read more)
Tips for reading War and Peace
- Character list – flag it and refer to it often (until you can get the characters straight)
- Pace yourself- this is no page turner, stay up all night type of book. You will get tired so set small goals, read a few chapters, have a snack, read a few chapters, have some tea. See next tip
- Snacks– consume lots while reading – my favorite was chips, sushi and ice cream sandwiches
- #buddyread – if I weren’t reading with a group I would have easily given up. I highly recommend reading with others – give each other time to catch up and adjust your reading schedule accordingly.
There is nothing certain, nothing at all except the unimportance of everything I understand, and the greatness of something incomprehensible but all-important.
You also get major book nerd cred (a readers badge) for finishing this beastly book. A few of us had some negative side effects during and after reading this one but I’ll reserve those comments for another time.
So there you have what I’ll call #Tips4Tolstoy or should that be #TipsyAfterTolstoy? (Yes, Tipsy is the one I picked too).
What big book have you read recently and what advice do you have for tackling some of those classics must reads?