* translation: Louise and Alymer Maude, WORDSWORTH EDITION (for page # references)
“Many people start to read War and Peace for the same reason as others climb Mount Everest: because it’s there.” – Johanna Trew
Two and a half years ago I started my way up the mountain. After four months I set up camp and sat down, refusing to get down but not trying to continue. Three months ago I quickly packed up my stuff, jogged my way back to base camp and then started my way back up. Two and a half months after that I finally settled down on the tip, slightly confused because of a certain second epilogue, but with a smile on my face and an immense feeling of pride. The kind that lasts for like a week straight, unwavering, painting the world a very attractive shade of pink. It was fabulous.
Let’s be real here. Many of us decide to read War & Peace because we want to feel special, like we’ve achieved something awe-inspiring. It’s much easier than running a marathon, with an emotional reward at the end. And you can eat while doing it.
War & Peace is not something I’d put on a summer reading list. I wouldn’t recommend taking it to the beach. I wouldn’t recommend taking it to the park. Frankly, I wouldn’t recommend taking it anywhere unless you have a backup physical therapy appointment for your back. I actually did read it in a McDonald’s once, eating fries and ice cream on a Friday night, but that’s another story.
A one thousand page tale about 19th century Russian aristocracy during the Napoleonic Wars? Probably not the most exciting description ever. Most people actually refuse to believe me when I tell them it turned out to be good. Maybe even a bit more than good. I think the term “life-changing” can only be applied to experiences many years after they’ve happened, so we’ll have to hold up on that one, but Important Life Event seems reasonable for now. More than just being able to say I’ve done it, I feel like I finally managed to commit to something and follow it through. It even turns out to be relevant in conversation from time to time (and not just to show off). I’m also extremely pleased with my weekly posts, which, if I may say so myself, are well-written and thoughtful and, dare I say it, even entertaining. I’ve also managed to bring this blog back from the dead, hopefully for good this time.
And another thing. I think I’m on my way to curing my classics-phobia. I now recognize names of translators, read translation recommendations before considering new books, and even have my own preference (how fancy is that, huh?) On my way back down from the peak I stopped by a bookstore and got Anna Karenina and Crime & Punishment. And I wasn’t even slightly scared. After you’ve climbed Mount Everest everything else seems like a hill, at best. Suddenly there are so many books I want to read; so many books I’ve avoided for years suddenly seem within reach. It’s exhilarating.
War & Peace was possible because I was realistic, and that’s something I would recommend to anyone planning to try this out. It’s a “project”. It’s something you “tackle”, something you need to “work on”. Not the usual terms we use for describing the average reading experience. But if you fully commit, you’re set for one hell of a ride. Funny and sarcastic. Sad and scary. Disappointing and surprising. Sometimes you want to just want to reach into the pages and give a little Russian aristocrat a hug, sometimes it’s more of a punch-’em-in-the-face kind of feeling. Every once in a while someone dies. You find yourself cheering on the perfect couple, yelling at them as they destroy their relationship, yelling at others for just being idiots in general. You feel sort of like a parent, watching them as they figure it all out for themselves.
It’s the best way to learn history, because no Wikipedia page can convey the feeling of losing at Austerlitz, of chasing the French on their way out, of standing on a deserted street in Moscow, watching the flames light up the horizon. I’ve lain down on a battlefield, looking at the sky, waiting to die. I’ve packed up our family’s belongings, forced to leave home as war breathes down my neck. I’ve looked Napoleon straight in the face.
It’s been a pleasure sharing this journey with you all in our own little one-man-show book club. It kept me going, knowing that quitting would mean admitting defeat, not just to me but also to the Internet, and no one ever wants to do that. More than just being pleased at having this sort of… travel journal, I enjoyed having to actually think about it all, to work out my opinions and thoughts, to truly understand this experience and immerse myself in it, and not just hike along with my head down, eyes firmly fixed on my boots (or cast, in this case). I hope you all enjoyed it just as much as I did.
My lateral malleolus is whole again; War & Peace is shelved as “read”. What more is left? I’m toying with the idea of season two: Reading Anna Karenina: One Woman’s Journey to Healing A Now Not Broken Leg From Possibly Another Surgery to Remove the Plate and Screws Inserted During the First One, but we’ll see about that.
I would sign off with a “farewell and thanks for all the fish”, but that’s from a different story, so instead I’ll leave you with a pretentious Nicholas Rostov being me during these past two months.
“He would sit in his study with a grave air, reading – a task he first imposed upon himself as a duty, but which afterwards became a habit affording him a special kind of pleasure and a consciousness of being occupied with serious matters.” [pg. 904]
previous entries here
- useful link #1 – BookDrum
- useful link #2 – Themester’s “War and Peace” book club: December 2011