Introducing A Year of War and Peace +
A daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading of and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace
What It Is
A Year of War and Peace is the bibliotheraputic equivalent of mainlining your favorite mood enhancer.
Over the course of one year Medium members will be offered the opportunity to read and discuss one chapter of Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace per day as well as a reflective essay individually tailored to that day’s chapter. These reflective essays focus on the novel’s nineteenth century characters with the aim of improving contemporary readers’ twenty-first century lives. In 2017 I published these essays on Medium. This year, 2021, for the convenience of Medium members, A Year of War and Peace+ offers daily publication of both the public domain Maude translation of War and Peace and my reflective essays.
This unique approach to reading War and Peace is quite popular. Over seven thousand people, for instance, follow a subreddit dedicated to the plan. It also breaks down an intimidatingly long book into easily manageable, bite-sized parts. Finally, if you prefer audiobooks, I’m also providing a reading of A Year of War and Peace complete with all possible manner of mispronunciation of French and Russian words! I’m sure you’ll love it.
I’ve read War and Peace every day this way since 2009. I love it and invite you to join me.
What follows is an introduction to A Year of War and Peace+ and a table of contents. Please bookmark for future reference should you choose to join me on my reading this year. Though, it should be noted, A Year of War and Peace+ does not need to be read on the calendar year. It can be started any day you choose.
When a reader loves a book she never wants it to end. If her favorite novel is War and Peace it almost never does. Eventually, however, she’ll find that the thirteen hundred or so pages of the novel have all finally been turned. She will then be left only with the empty feeling that one of the great reading experiences of her life is now sadly behind her. She shouldn’t worry. If she really wants to get to know the book that prompted Virginia Woolf to dub Tolstoy the greatest of all novelists, if she really wants to integrate War and Peace into her daily life there is a way to do so. I should know: I’ve been reading the book for the past eight years.
That isn’t to say it has taken me eight years to complete the novel. That would be insane; I’m just crazy. You see, I first read the novel about eight years ago. I loved it. I wanted to read it again as soon as possible. The problem, and I’m sure all the bibliophiles out there can relate, is that I also wanted to read other books. I’m just promiscuous like that. So I had a problem: how to stay true to my number one while keeping a steady flow of side books shuffling through my nightstand?
A solution soon presented itself. While reading Constance Garnett’s Modern Library translation I noted that the novel is divided into fifteen parts and a two-part epilogue. Each part, in turn, is further divided into many chapters. These chapters are relatively short. The longest, in fact, is a mere eleven pages. I know that because I built a War and Peace spreadsheet seeking to compare the different translations. The average page length, in Garnett at least, is just shy of four pages. Four pages! That’s nothing. I figured I could fit four pages of reading into my daily routine. This notion turned out to be very interesting because as it happens there are 361 chapters in the novel. That means I could cycle through the book in roughly one year if I read just one chapter per day. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since: reading one chapter of War and Peace a day. I cannot conceive of any scenario in the future in which reading the book isn’t a part of my day.
So that’s how I read War and Peace.
Now the question to answer is why would a twenty-first century American want to read a novel about the nineteenth century Russian aristocracy?
First, and I’ll be blunt here, the chapter-a-day method makes for perfect commute reading. After all, there is no greater literary power move than boarding the subway, removing the massive tome from an NPR tote bag, throwing a wink at the nearest well-lettered and attractive person you can find, and then diving into the day’s reading with an air of gravitas only Tolstoy can provide.
For the less shallow and more serious reader there are plenty of other reasons. To begin with, it is an absolutely stunning novel of grand panoramic range and expertly observed microscopic detail. Here you’ll find broad descriptions of historic battles and also the nervous quiver of the downy upper lip of a beautiful princess as she contemplates her husband’s departure for war. Further, it shares with the nineteenth century a taste for experimentation. This is no mere narrative novel. The latter portions of the book morph into an historical/philosophical treatise. It is a difficult novel to pin down.
At its core, though, War and Peace is the story of three aristocratic Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. My favorite is the Bolkónski family. I’m at once attracted to the stoic pragmatism and stern living of the father and son on the one hand and the soft-hearted, emotive religiosity of the daughter on the other. Some of the best lines of dialogue in the book belong to the cantankerous old Bolkónski. Though he is a bit of a prick, truth be told. Especially towards his daughter. Lucky for him she’s into the Christian virtues of forgiveness and redemption. In fact, it’s her anchoring in the daily practice of Russian Orthodoxy that allows her, amid all the absurdity and madness of the story, to emerge as the novel’s most stable character. And it is the book’s characters, really, that keep readers coming back to War and Peace.
My favorite individual character of the book is, of course, Pierre Bezúkhov. There is so much to say about Pierre. The first thing to say is that, with apologies to señor Quixote, Pierre is probably the greatest character in world literature. What a wreck! Just look at the shenanigans he gets into: he inherits one of Russia’s largest fortunes. He ties a bear to a policeman and throws him into a canal. He marries a beautiful woman and shoots one of her paramours in a duel. Wracked with guilt he decides to join the Freemasons. His commitment doesn’t last long. He decides to free his serfs but settles on getting drunk and overeating instead. He discovers, based on absurd numerology, that history has chosen him to assassinate Napoleon. He is captured by the French and endures all manner of suffering. In short, he is the everyman, capturing the yearning and confusion of human life itself. We are Pierre. You’ll see when you start your one-chapter-a-day reading of the book.
The last of the great families of War and Peace is the Rostóv family. The Rostóvs are a family on the brink of financial ruin. Their patriarch is, to put a point on it, a total loser. He spends money he doesn’t have and can’t say no to anybody so he constantly finds himself being taken advantage of. The two strongest characters of the Rostóv family are the son Nicholas and the daughter Natásha. Natásha is the heart of the novel. In her we find all the exuberance, folly, and heartbreak of young adulthood. Whether she’s dancing at the latest ball, falling madly in love with Prince Bolkónski or recuperating from a self-inflicted emotional wound to the heart, there is a raw energy to her magnificently rendered by Tolstoy. The reader finds herself eagerly awaiting Natásha’s next appearance. Nicholas, her brother, is much the same. We witness him transition from a boastful and buffoonish soldier in love with his emperor to a very thoughtful man and savior of his family. The tale of the Rostóv family is a rich and worthy story to read and experience.
One scene in particular featuring Nicholas and Natásha helps illustrate not only Tolstoy’s brilliance but also why so many readers keep coming back to the novel one hundred and fifty-three years after its original publication. I’m talking about chapter 135 of the novel. Here we find Natásha and Nicholas visiting their uncle’s home after a busy day of hunting in the woods. There is a lot going on in their lives. Nicholas is on leave from a nasty war. Natásha is engaged to Prince Bolkónski but at the price of having to spend one year separated from him as a condition laid upon their engagement by the older Bolkónski. All this while the Rostóv family is on the brink of financial collapse. The night concludes with a trap ride home through the dark. As the trap sloshes along the wet earthen road and as the horses splash through the mud below the two siblings drop into a deep contemplative quiet under the canopy of the moon shadowed trees above. It’s a moment we’ve all had: a seemingly insignificant moment small to the world but expansive to the individual. Natásha’s soft whistling of Russian folksong is the perfect punctuation to the scene as the two share this private and intimate moment while all about them history is on the move and nations are at war.
Finally, A Year of War and Peace will help you learn how to live in an unpredictable, inscrutable, and hostile world. War and Peace is a story of great romance and adventure but it is also a tale of severe difficulty, sorrow, and confusion. By reading and thinking about the trials and tribulations of Tolstoy’s fictional universe we can develop the philosophical tools necessary to robustly navigate the challenges of our own. That’s the idea anyway.
War and Peace is my favorite novel. Long books like it are intimidating. But I believe, perhaps with the help of my chapter-a-day program, that readers can and should read it.
Go ahead: Give War and Peace a chance.
Table of Contents
To be updated as installments are published