You have more time than you think: War and Peace edition

Last Friday night, I did not do any of the things Katy Perry sings about in her song with that chorus. Instead, I finished War and Peace. That’s the kind of girl I am. I read Tolstoy for fun!

The truth is, I got really into the story. That explains my reading up until the last 80 pages, at which point I got really into just finishing it. Anyone who’s read the second epilogue knows of what I speak.

The story is, of course, epic. This saga of five Russian noble families brings together three of literature’s greatest characters: Prince Andrei Bolkonski, Count Pierre Bezukhov, and Natasha Rostov, the woman beloved by both. It is man’s search for meaning against the wrenching change caused by the Napoleonic wars, and Pierre’s discovery of said meaning while on a death march with the French retreating from Moscow. It is musings about the great man theory of history, vs. the theory of inevitability, with such philosophical musings artfully interspersed in the story. Artfully interspersed, that is, up until the last 80 pages, when Tolstoy inexplicably decides to beat the reader over the head with his musings, like the reader is on the forced march with the French. But anyway…the description! I particularly marveled over the set piece on the hunt: hounds, horses, wolves, and the Russian countryside. And I wrote down many quotes. “Pure and complete sorrow is as impossible as pure and complete joy.”

I really enjoyed War and Peace, but I also learned much about myself as a reader, and about time, from reading it. I am not sure that a year ago I could have read this book. It would have seemed too long. Indeed, my paper copy of War and Peace had a 2002 airplane receipt stuck in it right around page 200. I guess that was as far as I got before abandoning it. Too much book.

But this year I have been getting my head around the idea of length. First, in January-February I began reading novels again. Then I began reading more of them. I began thinking through what I wanted to read next, and spending more of my random minutes absorbed in books. By summer I was swimming through Kristin Lavransdatter and 1Q84. So I was prepared for War and Peace.

I tackled it as I would any large project: bit by bit. I figured I would hold myself to reading 4 percent per day (I read it on my Kindle app), which would have translated to 60 pages, or about an hour of reading. At that rate, I would be done in 25 days. A key realization: One way or another, I would eventually be on the other side of those 25 days, but in one universe I would have read War and Peace and in another I would not have.

But Tolstoy helped matters along. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I loved Anna Karenina when I read it many years ago (during another reading phase — I had a long commute, and no responsibilities beyond my job). And you don’t get to be held up as a great example of world literature by writing crap. Plus, a writing tactic I could actually borrow: short chapters. Even if I only had 5 minutes, I could get through a chapter. A chapter of Tolstoy! Before my conference call starts! How cool is that? I wound up averaging 7 percent per day (about an hour and 45 minutes) right up until the last two days when momentum took over.

Reading for an hour and 45 minutes per day is a lot, but it wasn’t in a concentrated chunk. It was often for an hour at night after the kids were in bed, and then some days 30 minutes during a kid’s activity, and 15-20 minutes elsewhere during the day. These chunks do add up. They add up to War and Peace.

I realized I had time to read real literature when I tracked my time for a year, and learned I had read 327 hours over 365 days. This is quite a lot — almost an hour a day — but it was scattered at random stuff. This year I decided to change that. I am reading more, but even reading 327 hours would be enough to get through a lot of what I’ve read. Including Tolstoy! It’s about being mindful of one’s time, and not shying away from aiming it at something big.

What’s on your reading bucket list?

Photo: Signet classic; but I read a different translation. I checked a few choice bits, and I prefer the translation I read but I cannot find the translator’s name on my Kindle version’s notes! 

23 thoughts on “You have more time than you think: War and Peace edition

  1. Infinite Jest, Anna Karenina, maybe The Brothers Karamazov. I generally only get to read right before bed, so I need short chapters so I don’t fall asleep before the end. It can be depressing not making enough progress though, which is probably why I give up a lot of the time.

  2. Were you reading the Xist Classics edition? (Plug,plug!) I’m pretty sure Constance Garnett was the go to translator for most of the Russian classics that are now in the public domain.

    I finished The Count of Monte Cristo last night— I’m also trying to use more of my reading hours to read the books I always said I wanted to read. A few weeks ago I was at 50% on the Kindle and was sure that the book had to be almost finished. Nope. It’s long but we’ll worth it!

  3. Perhaps it was an older translation? I read my grandmother’s old hardcover copy of Anna Karenina, which did not credit a translator either.

  4. I am so impressed! I do think reading is like a muscle you can train. I also have learned that it often takes me 50+ pages to get sucked in, so to plow through the early parts even if I’m not excited. (Then after the 50-100 page mark. . . if I still don’t want to read it . . .I can move on 🙂 ).
    2017 was a decent reading year for me but I think next year will be even better! How do you create your TBR list? (if you want . . .save your answer for our podcast. ha!!!)

    1. @SHU- I think 50 pages is more than an adequate chance to give a book that you don’t have a pressing need to read. And since we’re not in school anymore, there are very few books that fall in the must-read category!

      And the TBR list… good question. I tend to just pay attention to recommendations (people leave many here!), or things I read (magazines, newspapers) for new recommendations. Modern Mrs. Darcy is always good.

    2. Oooh, thanks. I love the 50 page rule. I probably have given up on a few good books too soon, so I’m going to give this a try.

      I keep my TBR list in two places – one on my Amazon wish list if I happen to see something there while browsing other stuff, and then I have a physical list in my Bullet Journal (plus another list where I’ve tracked what I read!). Every now and then I may transfer the Amazon ones to the Bullet Journal and delete them from Amazon because my husband sometimes buys them for me as gifts, and really, I just want to check it out from the library.

    3. My TBR list is scattered – I pick up a few here and there (Modern Mrs Darcy, other podcasts like God Centered Mom), my audible new listens, amazon’s “you may be interested in…” emails (usually I am!), new non-fiction where I’m already a fan of the author and my physical bookshelf which is now only 3 shelves so yay (I have an ongoing project to read and declutter physical books!)

      1. @Marcia – Amazon needs to beef up their recommendations on the Kindle device – I keep getting the same self-published, sad looking crap in genres I am not interested in reading. They have a WEALTH of information on what I pay for — I have no earthly idea why they don’t use it. I would buy SO MUCH if it just popped up on my Kindle and was relevant to my interests…

  5. Awesome, Laura. I’m always impressed with how much you do, and now I’m impressed by how much quality reading you’re accomplishing. More and more, I’m learning that we make time for what is important to us.

    1. @Kathy- thanks! Something always gives, it’s just a question of what. I’ll admit that I’ve sent a lot of emails in the last few days that begin “sorry for my slow response…”

  6. Such a good reminder! I read A LOT but rarely tackle anything over 400 pages (even though I am in the middle of one right now) because it is so overwhelming to start. But time is going to pass no matter what and little bits of reading really do pay off!

    1. @Diana- Modern Mrs. Darcy had a list of books over 600 pages that were worth trying: – I would up reading Team of Rivals, and Kristin Lavransdatter based on that. 1Q84 had already been on my radar screen. You might find one or two on there that would be worth nudging yourself up from 400 pages! (I won’t read all the books on that list, but I can usually tell from MMD descriptions if a book is going to be not for me).

  7. I too used it read a lot on a commmute when I was younger with no outside work responsibilities. In these time I remember reading war and Peace, Anna Karenina, Les Miserables and the Count of Monte Cristo.

    I tracked my time in your time challenge recently, and realised that just like you I do read a lot every day, but it is all just bits and pieces. I’m going to have to work my way up back to the Russian classics, I think, but I’ve now got two new books on the go (one non fiction one fiction) rather than constantly re-reading comfort books and twitter.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. War and Peace is now definitely on my list. I watched the BBC adaptation earlier this year and really enjoyed the way the cinematography tried to capture the essence of Tolstoy’s descriptions (they made me think of the passages I enjoyed in Anna Karenina with I read as a teenager). I’d recommend Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies as long reads that captured my interest with great stories and writing. Thanks for the inspiration to go back to longer reads again!

  9. I tend to fall in love with an author and read everything they ever wrote. Right now, my obsession is Elena Ferrante-I highly recommend the Neapolitan Quartet!

    On the list: Elsa Morante’s History, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene

    I finish my dissertation next year and return to med school-so I feel like I’m racing against time to read as much as possible!

    1. everyone recommends Ferrante, but I read the first book (my brilliant friend) and I really disliked it. I wonder if it gets better in subsequent books. I didn’t like the characters and I thought the description was just too drawn out.

      1. Good point-I think everyone I’ve polled has said the writing and translation is spot on, BUT people were decidedly mixed on the books and characters. Very descriptive, as you say, but I loved that part. I think it’s one of the rawest descriptions of the best and worst of female friendship, AND there is no missing the undercurrent of anger, both in the society and with each of the characters.

  10. On the day my son auditioned for Les Miserables at school, I started the novel. I read every night in bed, then added reading while waiting for water to boil or oven to heat, while waiting in the car, etc.

    The intricate descriptions of sewer systems, tree-pruning techniques, factory production, Swiss clergy, battles, and battlefields, all got a little much for me, so I skipped those pages. So many pages.

    My goal was to finish by opening night. I made it by the closing night (3-night run). I just relished seeing my son as Enjolras (Marius’ buddy in the red vest).

    Maybe I should have had a “plan”, like 4% a night!

    1. @Barb – that’s how you can tell I’m a “marathoner” (vs. a sprinter) – I do tend to have plans like the 4% per day for tackling long projects. I wrote the draft of my most recent book at a prescribed pace of 1 chapter per week.

  11. My problem with super long books is that I like to check them out from the library and there is a 3 week limit on e-books (you can keep them longer if you turn off wifi on the kindle but then you can’t download anything else) I have no desire to purchase war & peace, but I’d like to read a little at a time until its done. And I don’t want to carry around the physical book, obviously! But I’m inspired to find a solution because there are several on my “read someday” list I’d like to tackle.

  12. Nice job on the Tolstoy! I love your approach to long books- it definitely is possible to finish them even if it feels like it takes forever. I think I commented this before, but I recently read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and it was 1350 pages. Definitely the longest book I’ve ever read. It took me 3ish weeks but I had a goal of 80 pages a day and in the end it was so worth it.

    I blogged about some books I’ve been loving lately and there are some longer ones on that list:

  13. Because I spend over two hours commuting each day, I listened through many audiobooks over the years, including War and Peace and Les Miserables. Generally, I also keep a book in my purse that I can pull out when I get stuck waiting. Laura, your use of the Kindle app gave me yet another way to keep a book on hand. I found using the app on my phone encourages me to redirect some of the time I used to spent on social media to reading enriching content instead. Thanks for the suggested reading lists and the tips for how to incorporate more reading during the week.

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