Why Should We Read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (and Finish It)? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s epic nov­el of Rus­sia in the Napoleon­ic wars, has for some time borne the unfor­tu­nate, if mild­ly humor­ous, cul­tur­al role as the ulti­mate unread doorstop. (At least before David Fos­ter Wal­lace’s Infi­nite Jest or Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s My Strug­gle.) The daunt­ing length and com­plex­i­ty of its nar­ra­tive can seem unique­ly for­bid­ding, though it’s equaled or exceed­ed in bulk by the books of ear­ly Eng­lish nov­el­ist Samuel Richard­son or lat­er mas­ter­works by the Ger­man Robert Musil and French Mar­cel Proust (not to men­tion the 8,000 page, 27-vol­ume roman Men of Good­will by Jules Romains.)

But where it may be nec­es­sary in cer­tain cir­cles to have a work­ing knowl­edge of À la recherche du temps per­du’s “madeleine moment,” one needn’t have read every vol­ume of the painstak­ing work to get the main fla­vor for this ref­er­ence. Tolstoy’s nov­el, on the oth­er hand, is all of a piece, an oper­at­ic text of so many dis­parate threads that it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to fol­low only one of them. And “any­one who tells you that you can skip the ‘War’ parts and only read the ‘Peace’ parts is an idiot,” writes Philip Hen­sh­er at The Guardian. (Now he tells me….) Hen­sh­er also swears one can read War and Peace “in 10 days max­i­mum.” Very like­ly, if you approach it with­out fear or prej­u­dice, and take some vaca­tion time. (But “could you read War and Peace in a week,” Tim Dowl­ing teased in those same pages?)

Tolstoy’s mas­sive psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait of Tsarist Rus­sia in thrall to the French emper­or remains a cor­ner­stone of world, and of course, Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture. With­out it, there may have been no Doc­tor Zhiva­go or August 1914. “War and Peace is a long book, sure,” con­cedes the TED-Ed video above from Bren­dan Pel­sue, “but it’s also a thrilling exam­i­na­tion of his­to­ry, pop­u­lat­ed with some of the deep­est, most real­is­tic char­ac­ters you’ll find any­where.” Like most hulk­ing nov­els of the peri­od, the book was orig­i­nal­ly seri­al­ized in a magazine—the pre-HBO means of dis­sem­i­nat­ing com­pelling drama—but Tol­stoy had not intend­ed for it to grow to such a length or take up five years of his life. One story—that of the Decembrists—led to anoth­er. Grand, sweep­ing views of his­to­ry emerged from exam­i­na­tions of “the small lives that inhab­it those events.”

Pel­sue makes a per­sua­sive rhetor­i­cal case, but also—for most type‑A, over-employed, or high­ly dis­tractible read­ers, at least—inadvertently makes the coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. There are no main char­ac­ters in the book. No Anna Karen­i­na or Ivan Ilyich to fol­low from start to bit­ter end. “Instead, read­ers enter a vast inter­lock­ing web of rela­tion­ships and ques­tions” about the nature of love and war. Maybe you’ve already got one of those—like—in all the time you spend not read­ing nov­els. So (snaps fin­gers), what’s the pay­off? The upshot? The “made­line moment”? (No offense to Proust.) Well, no one can—or should attempt to—summarize a com­plex lit­er­ary work in such a way that we don’t need to read it for our­selves. Nor, can any inter­pre­ta­tion be in any way defin­i­tive. To his cred­it Pel­sue doesn’t try for any­thing of the kind.

Instead, he offers up Tolstoy’s “large, loose bag­gy mon­ster,” in Hen­ry James’ famous­ly dis­mis­sive phrase, not as a nov­el, nor, as Tol­stoy coun­tered, an epic poem or his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cle, but as a dis­tinct­ly Russ­ian form of lit­er­a­ture and “the sum total of Tolstoy’s imag­i­na­tive pow­ers, and noth­ing less.” A blurb that needs some work? We’re only going to miss the point unless we meet the work itself, whether we read it over 10 days or 10 years. The same can be said for so many epic works that lazy peo­ple like… well, all of us at times… com­plain about. There is absolute­ly no sub­sti­tute for read­ing Moby Dick from start to fin­ish at least twice, I’ve told peo­ple with such con­vic­tion they’ve rolled their eyes, snort­ed, and almost kicked me, but I haven’t myself been able to digest all of War and Peace, nor even pre­tend­ed to. Tolstoy’s great­est work has sad­ly come to most of us as a book it’s per­fect­ly okay to skim (or watch the movie).

It’s a frus­trat­ing work, some­times bor­ing and dis­agree­able, didac­tic and annoy­ing. It has “the worst open­ing sen­tence of any major nov­el,” opines Philip Hen­sh­er, and “the very worst clos­ing sen­tence by a coun­try mile.” And it is also per­haps, “the best nov­el ever written—the warmest, the round­est, the best sto­ry and the most inter­est­ing.” Tol­stoy not only enter­tains, but he accom­plish­es his inten­tion, argues Alain de Bot­ton, of increas­ing his read­ers’ “emo­tion­al intel­li­gence.” I wouldn’t take anyone’s word for it. We are free to reject Tol­stoy, as Tol­stoy him­self reject­ed Shake­speare, call­ing the ven­er­a­tion of the Bard “a great evil.” But we’d have to read him first. There must be some good rea­sons why peo­ple who have actu­al­ly read War and Peace to the end refuse to let the rest of us for­get it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Leo Tol­stoy, and How His Great Nov­els Can Increase Your Emo­tion­al Intel­li­gence

Tol­stoy Calls Shake­speare an “Insignif­i­cant, Inartis­tic Writer”; 40 Years Lat­er, George Orwell Weighs in on the Debate

Watch War and Peace: The Splen­did, Epic Film Adap­ta­tion of Leo Tolstoy’s Grand Nov­el (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Tatiana says:

    Come on, peo­ple, it’s not James Joyce’s Ulysses.

    Tol­stoy is actu­al­ly an easy read, he abhorred “lit­er­ary” lan­guage, and one of the rea­sons the nov­el is so long is because he repeats him­self, both shows and tells, makes all the con­nec­tions for you. Part of his didac­ti­cism is that, in addi­tion to telling you what’s going on, he’ll make sure you know how to feel about what’s going on. The only con­fus­ing thing is the enor­mous cast of char­ac­ters, but any good edi­tion will have a list of who they are in the begin­ning.

  • John says:

    What Tatiana said!

  • Brian E. Denton says:

    Every­one should read War and Peace. It tru­ly is one of the great books. Many peo­ple avoid read­ing it because of its intim­i­dat­ing length. That’s one of the rea­sons why I start­ed A Year of War and Peace this Jan­u­ary. A Year of War and Peace is a dai­ly, years­long, chap­ter-by-chap­ter read­ing and med­i­ta­tion on Tol­stoy’s great book. Each chap­ter is very short so it’s per­fect for any­one who feels turned off by the length of the nov­el as a whole.

    Join me here: https://medium.com/@BrianEDenton/a‑year-of-war-and-peace-cc66540d9619

  • Stewart Degner says:

    I vol­un­tar­i­ly read War and Peace 30 years ago. It took me quite a while.
    I admit to being a slow read­er. I found that most of the char­ac­ters are time­less. I have met sev­er­al of them. I am one of them, (but I haven’t died mis­er­ably). We have lots of tech­ni­cal things now, but peo­ple, and soci­ety in gen­er­al, have not real­ly changed in 200 years.
    I strong­ly rec­om­mend the book. Take your time. Read it well. You will be bet­ter for it.

  • mat says:

    the book is essen­tial­ly divid­ed into two parts, one male and one female. The end­less dull soirees and the vibrant mil­i­tary scenes. I loved one and loathed the oth­er

  • Michael Daly says:

    I found it infi­nite­ly more read­able and com­pelling than Moby Dick; in fact I could­n’t put it down once I start­ed it. Some of the opin­ions here are baf­fling. As anoth­er per­son said above, Ulysses it ain’t.

  • Marina Teramond says:

    this is one of the must-read books actu­al­ly. if you want to under­stand how peo­ple lived in XIX cen­tu­ry or what they thought about the war — you should read it. i read all the four books and it was amaz­ing, actu­al­ly. some­times i did­n’t under­stand Natasha and what she did and why, but still the book is 100% great. Tol­stoy is a genius!

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