Selections from a Winter Reading War and Peace

January 13, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 9 3 min read

coverMy winter reading project this year is War and Peace. On an average night I make it through 15-20 pages before I become too tired to follow the story anymore. At this rate I should be done by Easter.

I have read Anna Karenina and The Death Ivan Illych so I am well-acquainted with the pleasures of Tolstoy. A 2007 NYRB article on a new translation of War and Peace described those pleasures well: “No other writer,” wrote Orlando Figes, “can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy.”

Reading War and Peace, there is the sense of beginning one of the great experiences one might have in a lifetime. It is an enervating feeling, but also a melancholy one. I imagine I will feel a step closer to death 1,300 pages from now.

But before that happens, I’d like to annotate the most beautiful, strange, penetrating and sublime moments from the book. This desire owes in part to the natural inclination to want to share something as good as Tolstoy. But there are selfish motives at work, too. I hope that I might, by sharing the experience of reading War and Peace, be able to hold onto it a little longer.

First, A few of my favorite passages from the first third of the book:

I found his description of obligatory and irreproachable idleness to capture an unexpected pleasure of parenthood: that even something as lazy as a late-morning nap feels purposeful, even dutiful, when taken alongside a sleeping child.

The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor—idleness—was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class- the military. The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness.

It’s astounding how often in War and Peace Tolstoy is able to write about overwhelming elements of human experience as easily as if he were observing a rock in his front yard:

After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andre’s request, went to the clavichord and began singing. Prince Andre stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt tears choking him, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He felt happy and at the same time sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments?…His hopes for the future?…Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang.

I often wonder whether the elements of our lives—the Internet, chain stores, abundance, self-consciousness—influence a conscious experience that is unique to our time. Tolstoy’s answer is that they don’t:

“Yes, that is true, Prince. In our days,” continued Vera—mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the time.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. I plan on rereading War and Peace in its new translation soon. A wonderful experience from one of the world’s greatest novelist. I hope you enjoy it.

  2. Jack- Thanks for the encouragement! The NYRB loved the new translation in this 2007 review:

    I read half the article and but then stopped when I realized it contained spoilers! It makes an interesting point about how Tolstoy employs repetition deliberately- of descriptions of characters, and of the words they use in speech- but that his early translators (Maude, who I’m reading, and Garnett) ironed out the repeat phrases to make the prose more ‘lovely.’ This new Pevear and Volokhonsky is said to be in this respect much more faithful to Tolstoy’s writing.

  3. When I finished War and Peace a few years ago, I sank into total depression as I realized I’d probably never have a reading experience like it again.

    Now, hope! I can pick up this new translation and have that same experience, but now, with more Tolstoy than ever. Yes.

  4. I hope you continue to enjoy “War and Peace”! I, too, think it’s one of the great reading experiences and feel fortunate that I love the book more each time I read it. I’ve read it four times now and can’t believe how much I discover in each new reading.

  5. Lisa- I checked out your series of posts on War and Peace and enjoyed them immensely:

    I shared your delight in the chapter where Pierre becomes engaged to Helene. I loved the way Tolstoy describes Pierre having an almost out of body experience, observing himself hurtling towards what he knows would be a doomed betrothal, but feeling powerless to stop it. And Prince Vasili! A conniver for the ages!

  6. I’m plowing through W & P myself, though I decided I would take a break between each volume to read something else. I finished Volume I sometime this past fall and haven’t got back to it yet. You’ve inspired me that it’s time to get back to it (I hope I remember all of those characters.)

  7. Kevin, thank you for the note — it’s nice to hear you enjoyed my blog posts and that you also liked the engagement scene. Pierre is a wonderful character with his awkwardness, that hurtling you mention, and a desire to be part of events. (I don’t want to say too much…)

  8. Kevin, thanks for this. I approach-avoid W&P over and over again. The new translation should have motivated me, but I read the V&P translation of The Brothers Karamazov and found it a little painful. I was also disappointed that their new translation of Tolstoy’s short works does not include “The Cossacks.” That said, I think W&P will make a good summer project, and I’m inspired now.

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