War and Peace: A Reader’s Chronicle

Dispatches from Blog Editor Claire Harlan Orsi

Filed under: Blog |

Guess what? I read War and Peace! If this were any other book, I wouldn’t be able to get away with simply narrating an account of the mundane occurrences that filled my life during the reading of said book. But because this is War and Peace, all bets are off. Having earned “the right” (who bestows these rights?) to self-indulgence around page 1200, I will now treat my faithful blog reader(s) to a blow-by-blow account of—not my thoughts about the book itself, no, that would be a different, more dignified blog post entirely—the process of reading Tolstoy’s world-changing classic. All dates below are from the fateful Summer of 2012.

June 3
My friend Daniel asks me how my weekend was. “I picked up some dog poop in the yard,” I say. “Oh, and I started War and Peace!” Daniel, who has read War and Peace without feeling compelled to blog about it, asks me where I am in the book. “Page 10,” I say.

June 19
I begin to look things from the book up on Wikipedia. Several things occur to me: one is that I now have more context for the plot (Oh, so the French were fighting the Russians but were also friends with them—this makes so much more sense!); two is that I could spend all my reading time looking up concepts instead of actually reading the book, since the ratio of references I understand to references I don’t is about 1:1; three is that there is so much I don’t know, which is related to 2 and is something that occurs to me pretty much whenever I browse Wikipedia.

late June
By now everyone knows I’m reading War and Peace. I’ve posted it on Facebook and Goodreads, brought it up in casual conversation to everyone I know and wheat-pasted signs about it throughout the city of Lincoln, Nebraska. I do this mostly because I’m having trouble getting invested in the novel but don’t want to give up. I don’t want to give up because I know that there’s some reason everyone thinks it’s good, and that based on my history of reading and generally loving long novels I take a while to become fully immersed in them—and before I do, I want to be held accountable. Also, I’ll admit it: I just want everyone to know I’m reading War and Peace.

July 7
On a trip to Indiana to visit family, I take it on the plane with me. Is there anything better than showing off an enormous tome in the close public quarters of a plane? Whatever arguments can be made in favor of Kindle, surely this is an effective counter! Except that no one notices, or if they do they don’t want to talk to me.

July 10
I talk to my friend Meagan. “Lately I’ve really been getting lost in books I love,” she tells me. “If I’m really into a book I literally can’t put it down or even talk to anyone for like four days until I’m done.” I sigh. This is not the way I’ve been feeling about War and Peace.

July 11
Shockingly, I haven’t even finished Volume I. “Which do you like better, War or Peace?” my mother asks. I decide Peace.

July 14
Break to read books for Fall semester teaching, as well as to participate in my step-father’s book club.

July 22
Resume reading.

July 28
Dinner with family friends. One woman, a nurse who has just said she works 12-hour days, says that she recently finished the book. Wow! I might as well just drop it now.

July 30
Going strong at about 600 pages in, actually starting to identify with the characters. This is mostly because I’ve just gotten the hang of their patronymics and nicknames, so that I can tell that Natalya is the same as Natasha is the same as Natalie.

July 30
How did I go through life not knowing about the “Illuminists,” a quasi-Masonic sect suppressed by Bavaria in the late 18th century?

August 4
During a post-lunchtime doze I perfect the art of sleeping while also reading the book.

early August
Discover that the character Pierre discusses the meaning of the number 666 on page 666. Is this on purpose!? Is it the same in all editions!? Flabbergasted.

The book has become my whole life. Finally, I’m invested, and troublingly so. I care more about whether Prince Andrei lives or dies than I do about my own loved ones or hygiene. The dramas of Natasha and Pierre are fully my own. I feel the approach of the fall semester and know that if I’m going to finish, I must do it soon, before I have actual responsibilities.

August 26
One of my favorite things almost occurs: I’m reading the book on August 26, and the action of the scene is taking place on August 30. Having my reading date coincide with a novel’s plot date is even better than going to sleep when a character goes to sleep, another readerly experience I enjoy immensely. I debate slowing down my reading to catch up with the events, then decide against it, as I want nothing more than to keep gulping the novel.

September 1
I have nuanced opinions on 19th century military strategy. I mistake a park in Lincoln for a battlefield outside Moscow. I’m near the end—will I be able to live without the book?

Labor Day weekend
After the Epilogue is done, I look up from the page as if from a summer-long dream. Is it really over? Wind whistles through the empty parking lot of my mind. I’m lonely, bereft.

one hour later
I’ve recovered, at least enough to tell everyone I know the following: “Guess what? I finished War and Peace!”