Benefits from Reading War and Peace
David Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Literature at College of Lake County and Oakton Community College in Illinois. In the following essay, Kelly discusses why the people most likely to avoid reading War and Peace are the ones who would probably enjoy and benefit from it most.
It would be difficult to question the quality of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Although most critics would not go as far as E. M. Forster did in Aspects of the Novel, proclaiming this to be the greatest novel ever written, all would swear to its overall excellence. As with any work, critics consider different ideas about its relative merits and weaknesses, no matter how revered.
Still, with such universal acclaim, no one ever feels the need to ask why War and Peace isn't read more often—anyone who has ever looked at it on a bookshelf, taking up the space of four or five average novels, knows at a glance the secret of its unpopularity. It's huge. All across the world, War and Peace is mentioned in pop culture, but usually it is discussed in terms of how difficult the speaker's education was, or would have been, if they had actually gone ahead with things like reading big novels.
Literary critics tend to skip quickly past this issue of the book's enormous size, although the general public can never get past it. In the literary world, bringing up a book's length is as tasteless as mentioning its price—both being worldly concerns, not artistic considerations. Unfortunately, the result is a huge gap between the values of critics and the values of readers, especially students. Many students find the page count intimidating, and would be just as happy reading three hundred pages of nonsense as a thousand worthwhile pages. This is where the jokes about War and Peace come in, reinforcing the idea that it is not only unimportant, but is ridiculous. Students end up making their decision about whether or not to read it without ever looking at a page, judging the book by the distance between its covers. To students who do not care for literature, this book seems the most dreaded of all possibilities.
Actually, this is the book that students who do not like literature have been asking for. It is not too clever, too wound up in an artistic style to be appealing to the general reader. We all feel life's pace—its mix of chance and fate—and some people find themselves particularly irritated by the way that life is compressed to fit into a book of a few hundred pages. They sorely miss the rich incidental details that are trimmed off on the edges of the writer's frame. Young readers, who are dissatisfied with books that don't represent life, need a book like this: one that can take bends, back up, or plow straight ahead, according to what happens in the world we know—not according to some literary theory. Ernest J. Simons' classic examination of War and Peace quoted an anonymous reader saying it best: "if life could write, it would write just as Tolstoy did."
Of course, all writers write about life in their own way, but what makes this case different is that War and Peace is successful at reflecting a true pace of life without having to dwell upon how poignant it is or oversell its own sensitivity. It is not difficult to understand. The book has something in it to remind readers of all of their own experiences. Working with such a long form gives Tolstoy freedom to follow the lives of his characters as they zig and zag, as they live out their intentions or fall to fate's control.
Freedom is what War and Peace is about, although Tolstoy does not formally declare this intention until nearly twelve hundred pages are done. By that time, after we have felt the looseness of his style, the emphasis on freedom of the mind is no surprise. The feeling of freedom takes time to establish. A novel that is tightly plotted can get to its point in a few sentences, but these are the books that raise the suspicions of those wary readers who hate the artificiality of art. For an author like...
(The entire section is 17,569 words.)