My first ever reading hurdle was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When it was announced that J. R. R. Tolkein’s classics would be made into films my goal was to finish each book in the trilogy before the film equivalent was released in theatres. As a twelve-year-old I figured this was an impossible task, but I had enjoyed reading The Hobbit so I was determined to delve back into a new Middle Earth adventure. What felt at the time like an eternity’s worth of reading actually ended up being something that was not only possible, but enjoyable. I had looked at the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an incredibly steep and treacherous mountain that I could only dream of climbing. But in the end despite its length I had found a new lifelong favourite with some of my most treasured fictional friends.
Because of this I always scold myself when I continue to pass on reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1867). I own a copy; I’ve owned a copy for a number of years. Which means at some point I actually went out and purchased it with the intent of reading it all the way through. So what’s the big deal? Why haven’t I sucked it up and read it?
A couple nights ago while I was at my parent’s house I looked through some of the books that I left behind when I moved to England and saw War and Peace looking back at me. Up until that moment I had pretty much written it off completely. Occasionally I’d read about it somewhere and think ‘why did I never read that?’ and then continue on without a second thought. But really… why have I never read it???
The reason is simple. War and Peace intimidates me more than any other book I’ve come across. It’s not that I have anything against classic literature (quite the opposite, actually) or that I don’t find historical fiction interesting. It’s the reputation of War and Peace as being the novel to end all novels that frightens me. The literal Mount Everest of the literary world. An obstacle so great and so impossible that many who attempt to read it through to the end fail. It’s referenced constantly in films and other books as a mark of a true well read individual. If you are intelligent, according to the popular culture gods, you have read War and Peace. I wonder how that would make Tolstoy feel?
After a brief stare down with the Russian tome I went over and grabbed it off the bookshelf. I admit to instant regret but my mind was made up. I was going to climb this mountain in 2018, not because I want to be pop culture’s definition of genius but because I’m honestly curious about why this book has gained the reputation that it has today. After a quick skim of reviews on Goodreads people seem to genuinely enjoy reading it and felt intimate connections with both the characters and the story. I found this re-assuring but I’m also a tad skeptical. Do people say they like War and Peace for the sake of saying they enjoy it? Or is it actually one of the greatest novels ever written? Obviously its all very subjective and a book’s importance in the global literature canon is far more complex than simple individual enjoyment. But my number one question is still: does it live up to the hype?
So here I am now, only about 20 pages in. While I admit to it not being nearly as complicated to read as I had first imagined there is a small detail that makes following along with the little bit of the story I’ve read a tad difficult: the characters. And there are an awful lot of them. Because my knowledge of 19th century Russia is admittedly low I had to look up how naming conventions worked and why some characters appear to have a handful of names that others address them by. I’m referring mostly to what appear to be pet names, nicknames, and surnames (or middle names?) that change depending on the gender of the individual.So I decided that in order to properly follow along with the story (at least while I got used to it) I would need to find a trusty list of the main characters. Through this I stumbled upon a family tree that I will now be using as a bookmark.
And finally, to revisit my high school days, I tracked down the SparkNotes because you can’t get the full experience of reading a difficult book without someone reassuring you that you really do know what’s going on. Is this overkill? Yes. It absolutely is. But if I’m going to be reading War and Peace I want to actually have an idea of what’s going on. Maybe I’ll be able to ditch the SparkNotes and family tree once I get a bit of the way in. But in the meantime I’m clinging onto these lifelines for dear life. I really want to get the most out of this experience so I feel like over preparing is better than going in completely blind.
I’ll update my reading progress as I work my way though. But I will continue to read other books while I do so because I have a terrible time only reading one at a time. I am still finishing up I, Robot and hope to make a post about the within the next few days. I haven’t quite decided what my next book will be but it will likely be something short and fluffy to offset my new Russian friend. Wish me luck!