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!