Brief Reflections on War and Peace

I’m a little late to the game, I’ll admit, but I wanted to write down some thoughts about Tolstoy’s masterpiece while they’re running through my head. I won’t delve too much into the specifics of the plot, but I’ll walk you through how I read it, which I think turned out to be one of the most intelligent schemes I’ve ever devised.

I think a big part of getting the most out of life is truly understanding your strengths and weakness, then adjusting accordingly. War and Peace is a good example of me approaching this philosophy with an unusual amount of foresight (I tend to rush into things and end up over-stressing). You see, I knew going in that I was going to struggle with the text. I had little knowledge of Russia during this time period, even less knowledge of Russian culture, and the very length of this tome caused no fair amount of intimidation.

So I bought the Cliff’s Notes. And then I read the Cliff’s Notes, then the corresponding sections of the book (and sometimes vice-versa) in order to maximize my understanding. And I found myself easily following the multiple storylines and getting a better ken of the intricacies of Tolstoy’s time period (not to mention is fondness for portraying Napoleon and the French as imbeciles).

I read the book in just under a month. It wasn’t my intention to torture myself. It started as a challenge. I was with some colleagues who mentioned they’d wanted to read the book (and never had), and I proposed the Charlie Brown Challenge. I remembered once that Charlie Brown was assigned War and Peace over Christmas vacation, a torture befitting Charles Schultz’s humble protagonist. I suggested we do the same thing between semesters of teaching. My colleagues enthusiastically agreed.

For myself, I chose to spend my break walking up to Collectivo Cafe, which has the best coffee in the United States. I got a coffee and a biscotti, and then spent two hours reading. Every morning. I went from the book to Cliff’s Notes to the book and back.

Fast-forward three weeks into Christmas break. I sent an update to my colleagues only to receive an infuriating response:

“Oh. Were we supposed to read it, too?”

So there I was, nearly finished with War and Peace, and no one to discuss it with. But I don’t regret reading it at all. I found it incredibly entertaining and beautiful, a masterpiece that stands the test of time. The scenes of war depict a desperate Russian army and soldiers who cling to nationalistic pride as a superior enemy threatens their homeland. The scenes of peace betray an even more gruesome internal conflict that leaves Moscow burning before Napoleon even arrives.

War and Peace questions what we should be fighting for, eschewing glory in favor of higher virtues, and Tolstoy hints that these higher virtues are what led to Russia’s ultimate victory. Tolstoy’s use of French to distinguish the aristocracy draws intense lines between the characters and their classes, who eventually come to see themselves changing enough to abandon French altogether and regain an interest in their native language. What emerges through all of this is the notion that life’s great moments exist in a collection of individual actions, even in war, and there’s something beautiful about that. That all of us, collectively, form a unique history is a direct challenge to all the puff pieces about “geniuses” we’re inundated with every day, reinforcing the notion that the rest of us exist in their historic timeline.

Read the book. Find a way to understand what you’re reading. Find a way to enjoy it. But maybe give yourself more than a month to do it.