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Monday, May 28, 2018

On Reading the Long Novel

by Lael Ewy

When one references War and Peace, one does so in order to invoke a cliché. War and Peace is the quintessentially long novel. It is known for that and for nearly nothing else—certainly not as something anyone would actually read.

In fact, the cliché itself is really not about the length of the book; the cliché is about the impossibility of reading it, and the disdain the speaker has for long novels.

For these reasons, among others, I set out to actually read it.

I suppose people hear the call to engage in physical challenges such as running marathons to prove something to themselves (or others), or the call to climb mountains “because [they are] there,” but I set out to read War and Peace in order to try to restore reality to it. For at least one living member of the species, it would become a novel again.

Since you probably won’t read it, here’s what you need to know from someone who has:

1. It’s good. For the most part. It’s not the novel you’d think it should be at least in part because novels weren’t what you now think they are when Tolstoy wrote it. Hundreds of pages are devoted to the analysis of the individual’s place in history and the minutiae of the War of 1812. The latter was of great importance to his expected audience, and it might still be of interest to scholars of military history. The former should be of interest to anyone with a pulse. But

2. no doubt all that would annoy contemporary readers. I honestly have no idea what contemporary readers want out of a novel these days. Apparently, they want to be terrified by the prospect of a dystopian future. To me, this seems silly given that the prospect of a dystopian present is quite frightening enough. However,

3. it’s not a “hard” read. There’s merely a lot of it there. Tolstoy, as is typical of the great Russian writers, draws characters who are detailed and complex, so if you put the book down for a while, it’s easy to pick back up. Like with old friends, you may not recall every detail of their lives since you saw them last, but you’ll always remember who they are.

Few western European writers create characters who are this fully realized. Perhaps Dickens’ main characters, but he also populated his book with caricatures in a way that Tolstoy never would. Even soldiers we meet for only a few pages seem like real people we might know. In the US, maybe Hurston Henry James, or Melville (at his best) were capable of such things, as, perhaps, the greatest of the French. 

4. It’s a romance, historical novel, and philosophical treatise. And that’s probably why it’s so long. The historical figures, including Napoleon himself, as the other characters, come across as actual people. The book’s philosophy, while I disagree with it, must be defended, and the novel almost achieves that as well. To a degree, the characters themselves might contradict the philosophy it seems to promote, but perhaps Tolstoy intended that, pitting the lived experiences of the humans against the cynicism and determinism of the narrator.

At any rate, it’s ambitious. That’s in its favor overall, but it also means that there is a lot for the book to do.

5. Reading it is familiar if you’re used to 19h century novels and philosophy. Most people these days aren’t, I guess, and maybe that’s why they should read more 19th century novels and philosophy.

Reading War and Peace will change your orientation to time, people, and thought, and that’s a good thing. The thinking that most people are able to do is severely compromised by the media they have chosen to consume. We’re unable to think long thoughts because we seldom encounter them. We’re distracted because we surround ourselves with distractions. And consume media we do: popping tweets like we do Skittles and gnawing video games like endless bags of chips. This has reinforced our inability to think in a coherent way. We may have deep maps in our minds of a million virtual adventures, but if we’re unable to appreciate the lives of those we believe are not like us—the Russians of 200 years ago or a Black laundress in the Jim Crow South—maybe we’re wasting our time. Perhaps we’ve “escaped” during the time we’ve played, but we haven’t really prepared ourselves to make the world we inevitably re-enter a better place.

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