Reading Great Books with The New York Times (Starting with War & Peace)

tolstoy.jpgEarlier this month, The New York Times Book Review launched an online Reading Room that lets readers tackle great books with the help of “an all-star cast of panelists from various backgrounds—authors, reviewers, scholars and journalists.” The first reading starts with Leo Tolstoy’s 1200+ page epic, War and Peace (1865-69), and it’s led by book review editor Sam Tanenhaus and a supporting crew consisting of Bill Keller (executive editor of The Times), Stephen Kotkin (a Russian history professor at Princeton), Francine Prose (author of Reading Like a Writer), and Liesl Schillinger (a regular reviewer for the Book Review).

At the outset, Sam Tanenhaus’ introduction leaves the impression that the “Reading Room” will offer a fairly structured reading of Tolstoy’s text. But that’s not exactly how things turn out. Often quite fragmentary, the conversation mostly operates outside the text itself and veers in many different, though often intriguing, directions. At one moment, Francine Prose tells us that Tolstoy’s account of the Napoleonic wars reminds her of today’s war in Iraq. For Bill Keller, it evokes the waning days of the Soviet Union. And, for Liesl Schillinger, it’s her youth in 1970s America. (You can get a feel for the flow and focus of the discussion here.) Ultimately, what you think of this new project depends on what you want to get out of the experience. If it’s a more structured reading (as we were hoping), then you may not be completely engaged. But if it’s a more free-flowing conversation that moves in and around great works, then you’ll want to join the conversation. And, yes, there’s a role there for the everyday reader too. Take a look at the Reading Room and let us know what you think.

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