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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