Reading War and Peace: The Effects of Great Art on an Ordinary Life

March 16, 2010 | 46 5 min read

coverIn the same way that it would be hard to meet Scarlett Johansson and not be distracted by her beauty, it is difficult to read War and Peace and not be preoccupied with its reputation as the greatest novel ever written.  As lay readers, the specific qualities that make War and Peace so great can be hard to assess.  But just as it takes specialized knowledge to understand exactly why a magnet attracts metal, yet any five-year-old can identify a magnet when he sees one, it is one thing to apprehend the formal properties of a great work of art, but another, much more accessible question, to assess its effects.  And so, having recently finished reading War and Peace, what I want to think about is just what it is that great art does.

One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace?  The answers, I think, tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading.

The social consequences first.  It’s a fair bet that without War and Peace I would not know that my father-in-law read the book himself in two feverish weeks 35 years ago while on sabbatical in West Berlin.  People, as I discovered, tend to remember where they were when they read War and Peace, and when they saw me with the book they told me those stories.  I learned that my friend Paul read War and Peace as a 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia in the late-sixties.  He told me that the experience was revelatory in that it showed him that “a classic that came with the gravity of adult recommendations could be more engaging than life and easy to read, too.”

War and Peace lends itself to sharing with others more than most books.  I wouldn’t say that shareability is an essential element of great literature, but where present, it helps.  As I read, I frequently retold episodes from the book.  I remember taking a long walk with my wife in early February and telling her the story of how Pierre, who was kind-hearted but lacked will, became engaged unwittingly to Helene who was beautiful.  With my father-in-law, as part of a conversation about how to plan for the future, I brought up the tragic tale of young Petya Rostov, who joined the Russian army in a fit of patriotic fervor, but whose romantic visions of war blinded him to its dangers right up until the moment he was shot through the head.  And on a happier note, I shared with my friend Eric a retelling of the scene of Natasha at the opera, a scene charged through with the erotic energy of a young woman suddenly becoming aware of her beauty and the power it holds over men.

This is not something I usually do, tell stories from books I read, but the spectrum of experience depicted in War and Peace, combined with the precision with which it’s captured, creates an infinite number of roads into the book and an infinite number back out.  The fact that the scenes in War and Peace are easy to retell is also in keeping with a claim my friend Paul likes to make that Tolstoy’s writing is so irreducible that the translation doesn’t matter. (For my part, I began reading the Maude translation and switched halfway through to the new Pevear and Volokhonsky; I found that while my mind was stimulated all the same, my heart raced twice as fast with the newer version.)

After the social experience of the book there is the intellectual one.  I have read other novels where the controlling idea of the story came to serve as a lens through which I viewed my days, but never has this happened quite as thoroughly as it did with War and Peace.  Tolstoy’s intellectual agenda in the book was to expose the meagerness of historical accounts of the War of 1812 that tried to reduce the world-remaking conflict to a finite and knowable set of causes.  Instead, Tolstoy wanted to depict the war in all its complexity and contingency, to show that the outcome rested at least as much on the decision of an individual soldier to charge or not as it did on Napoleon’s machinations, and that both the soldiers and the Emperor were controlled equally by forces larger than themselves.

It’s an expansive idea and one that finds ready application in almost any facet of one’s life.  I thought of Tolstoy when reading about climate change (he probably would have been a skeptic) and when assessing President Obama’s leadership on health care (I think, based on his favorable depiction of General Kutuzov, who abandoned Moscow to the French in order to preserve the Russian army, that Tolstoy would have endorsed Obama’s decision to forego the public option).

I applied War and Peace to my life in smaller ways, too.  A passage about the forced idleness of regimental life clarified vague thoughts I’d had about how having a baby makes it easier to nap guilt-free.  And at one point—I may have been walking through a park when this happened—I stopped short after reading a passage on Prince Andrei’s decision to withdraw from life into the work of his estates that seemed, minus the part about the estates, like a mimeograph of my own mind.  (One somewhat disquieting effect of reading War and Peace is that the more your own thoughts show up in its pages, the less original your life begins to feel.)

In the end, though, the reason I read novels is not because I can talk about them with other people, or because I’m looking for ideas to explain the world.  I read them for the pure aesthetic moment that comes from seeing life perfectly distilled into words.  In this respect, I don’t think there is a more able book than War and Peace.  Tolstoy’s singular genius is to be able to take the torrent of conscious experience and master it.  There are countless moments in the book where this happens, but the one that left me reeling was Tolstoy’s long, exquisite depiction of the Battle of Borodino, which was the deciding battle in the war and one of the bloodiest in history.

The night I finished reading about Borodino, it was plainly obvious that I had just read something great.  Yet here I was sitting in a corner of my couch, just the same as I had been an hour before.  I thought about the question with which I opened—what is it that greatness does?  An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.

Previously: Scenes of Retreat in War and Peace and Atonement, Selections from a Winter Reading War and Peace

Bonus Link: The Millions Interview: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

, 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. “One somewhat disquieting effect of reading War and Peace is that the more your own thoughts show up in its pages, the less original your life begins to feel.”

    During the time when I was reading War and Peace, I actually found this exact same effect to be comforting. I realized I wasn’t crazy and that the various thoughts running through my mind were the same thoughts others had been having for centuries. Sometimes it’s nice to know you aren’t alone or even original :)

  2. Having just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov (also the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation) last night just after midnight, and today still reeling from the encounter, as you say, of great art on my ordinary life, I really appreciate your thoughts.

    And for the time being, I’m swearing off epic length novels, and focusing more on novels that don’t require a quarter of a year to conquer.

  3. Nathan, I like your interpretation of the ‘unoriginality’ point. And I would say I too, on the whole, found the universality of War and Peace to be more reassuring than not.

    And Winston, thanks for reading. I’ve made a couple false starts at Bleak House in the days since I finished W&P, so it remains to be seen whether I’ve got one more big book in me, or whether it will be time to tackle more modestly sized novels for awhile

  4. It’s funny what big books can do to a person. Earlier in the year I read “The Savage Detectives” and “2666” right in a row and when I was done I found my ability to read anything of any kind of length or difficulty to be completely demolished.

  5. Lovely piece. In talking about what art does, I find it is always an assertion not of what we have done or where we have been but of what we can do. To pick one of my favorite examples, Cassavetes’ ‘A Woman Under The Influence’ is a portrait not of a marriage but of what a marriage can truly be, and expands understanding of why love matters now and forever.

  6. I do think it’s the best book ever written. Nice piece on it. I read it during a physical, emotional and religious crisis in my life in my mid thirties. I feel like it honestly helped me through it, the compassion in it is that strong.

  7. I loved your essay. I appreciate your point that as much as I might not remember a book in all its detail, I remember vividly where I was in life when I read some of my favorite ones and how the story shaped my perception of that time. In the spring of my senior year, a few months after my mother died, I read Marilynnne Robinson’s Housekeeping for an English class. The story focuses a lot on memory and loss, and it shaped the way I dealt with how my memory of my mom would change over time, a thought I was struggling with a lot right then.

  8. Very nice post. I share your interest in and passion for War and Peace. In fact, since getting a Kindle I’ve been in the habit of reading a chapter of the book a day during my subway commute. As there are 365 chapters in the book I finish a cycle every year. It’s an interesting way to read the book.

  9. I loved your sentence about how “the controlling idea of the story came to serve as a lens through which I viewed my days, but never has this happened quite as thoroughly as it did with War and Peace.”

    I think that must be why, when I was reading this novel, that everyone told me that I should re-read it every five years. Your experience of both life and the reading of the novel, changes depending on what’s happening around you.

    I first read W&P about 3 years ago (oct 07), when the war in Iraq was flailing and the American public was angry. It was a really interesting experience to read all of those war passages at that time. I wonder what life will be like in a couple of years, when I do my first re-read of the book.

  10. Maire and Brian, thanks for reading! It is nice to imagine that life is long enough to make room for more than one reading of War and Peace.

  11. Really great piece. I found it hard to discuss this book with people without sounding pretentious, but I think you did a fine job of describing the allure and the magnificence of the novel.

  12. Great essay.
    War and Peace is clearly the best book I’ve read. Or the one I’ve enjoyed the most. Or both.
    It also impacted my way of seeing things in millions of ways.

    As for long books (I’ve also tackled 2666 this year and am now reading Against the Day), it’s not about the length, it’s about the book.

  13. “…the spectrum of experience depicted in War and Peace, combined with the precision with which it’s captured, creates an infinite number of roads into the book and an infinite number back out.” Spectrum and precision are two words so aptly applied to Tolstoy. The same could be said for this essay! I admire your taking on W&P is such a short space here, and yet covering so much ground. I’ve enjoyed reading about your journey with the book and especially appreciate that you’ve taken the time to read it in a “whole self” way, and to report it to us in the same vein.

    Interesting to hear about your experience with the two translations, as well. Thanks, Kevin!

  14. The more I think about it the more things I could say. Perhaps that is the greatness of a great art work – that it is rich enough to provoke all manner of responses even from one person.

    I read it in three enchanted weeks just before my 19th birthday in about August 1977. I was unemployed and had the time to do nothing else for those three weeks.

    Even though reading Tolstoy’s biography and thought makes me less impressed with the man than i was as a teenager the memory of the experience of reading it, though i had quite forgotten it, was summoned back by this article.

  15. The praise for War & Peace has left me shaking my head and wondering what the heck you people have been smoking. War & Peace is the worst novel ever written. I’ve read technical manuels on how to repair computers that had better writing and more drama. It’s a long winded piece of tripe. A good editor should have wittled down this monstrosity of hot air to three hundred pages or less, but even then it still would probably be a bad book. If War & Peace is considered a farce, a social mockery of the Russian elite of that era, then perhaps I would consider it an okay book, but to take it as a serious piece of literature let alone consider it a work of art is shocking.

  16. Kevin, I enjoyed your essay (found it linked on I love serendipities and this is one of the best I’ve experienced in awhile. May I explain?

    As a life-long passionate reader, I decided to quit by job (as an attorney) two years ago, primarily to have more time to read quality literature. When people would ask me about this, my pat line was “I want more time to read–I want to be able to immerse myself in War and Peace”.

    Well, I’ve been reading quite a bit these past two years (I won’t even try to begin to list everything I’ve read, but it does include Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”–all six volumes). In any event, last night I finished “Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes and announced to my wife that at long last it was time to tackle War and Peace. So last night I pulled it from the shelf (I also have both translations you reference, but am reading the more recent one), removed its dust jacket and began reading the introduction.

    Then this morning, while enjoying my first cup of coffee, I see the link to your essay. Imagine my delight!

    Now I’m even more excited to dive into this masterpiece.

  17. Kevin, thanks for reminding me of the experience of reading W&P. As memorable and moving a 2-3 week period as any I can recall having ‘lived’ through in ‘real life’

  18. Nice essay. I would suggest a correction: While Napoleon’s invasion of Russia occured in the same year, the “War of 1812” more commonly refers to the war between the US and Britain. Your phrasing could be clearer.

  19. I was a 15 year old asthmatic finding release through two agonizing weeks in the pages of War and Peace. It provided me with an escape from a painful situation and the characters were strong companions crowding around my sick bed.

  20. This essay captures well that sense of a great novel as a world where the reader may live, move, and have another being. Good fiction extends the sphere of our living – not only in time and space, but in the life of the mind and of the emotions. It offers virtual change of air, light, relationships, experiences, perspectives. Its magic works inwardly for growth and renewal.

  21. War and Peace is magnificent, but Anna Karenina is really the better novel. Just ask Nabokov. If you haven’t read it, wait a year to give Tolstoy a rest. Then give it a try.

  22. I agree because Scarlett Johansen is really quite ugly and only reported to be beautiful because it says so in her press release – it is the same with Tolstoy. His nose is too big.

  23. I too, can endorse the magnificence of “War and Peace”, but I would recommend “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo for a similar if not even more illuminating experience!

  24. Excellent piece. I read W&P in my 20s, b ut the BBC dramatisation the 1970s had me fall in love with Natasha when I was 16. I’m still in recovery. I flicked your piece to a friend who is not yet engaged by page 50. This should spur him on.

  25. I came across this blog by accident, and I am delighted to have found it. It was referenced by someone who posted on a Proust thread which I follow. Anyway, it took me two attempts to read W&P. the first time I quit about a quarter of the way through. The second time, a few years later, i was more able to take the time and intellectual patience to appreciate this great work of art. While I respect the entire sweep of the novel, I think the description of the Battle of Borodin is the most profound account of war and its horrible aftermaths of anything I have ever encountered.

    On a somewhat less profound note, I also like Woody Allen’s description of War and Peace: It’s a book about Russia….:-)


  26. I too came to this conversation through a link on a Marcel Proust thread I follow. Kevin’s description of the experience of reading War and Peace was delightful and made me decide to reread it myself.

    Somebody else recommends Les MIserables. Hugo’s interpretation and description of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is the complete opposite of Tolstoy’s and it is very interesting to compare the two.

    According to Jerry Seinfeld, Tolstoy’s original titles for the novel was “War–What Is It Good For?”!

  27. It’s 25 years since I last thumbed through War & Peace and around 15 years longer since I actually read it. But just two weeks ago, I had a conversation with my wife about Russia, only to find Natasha dancing to the front of my subconscious, where she has hung around ever since, now joined by Pierre, Nicolai and Marya. I’m delighted to welcome my old friends back. Such is the power of this book! I must read the new translation.

  28. Ironically, I am nearing the end of War and Peace just now. I purchased a Kindle about two months ago and decided to make it one of my first books (to make up for the latest Dan Brown novel that was, in fact, my first.) This article resonated most in describing how changed the author felt one hour after beginning the parts of War and Peace describing the battle of Borodino, yet without ever leaving his sofa. That is an incredibly insightful way of thinking about what art and literature do for us.

  29. Great article – you basically articulated everything I’ve been thinking about all week (thanks to a sprained ankle, I just marathon-read W&P in 7 days). I read books too, to hear “life perfectly distilled into words” (hoping that I’ll eventually figure out how to do it too), so Tolstoy was fairly awe-inspiring. This book was honestly a joy to read… even though he didn’t seem to know what an epilogue is :)

  30. Yes, even I instantly caught the “War of 1812” thing, and I’m no history buff, or anything. But this article is two years old, now, so I guess I’m just being a nitpicky troll for no goddamn reason, and long after the fact, even.

    I don’t know who I am anymore.

  31. Nicely stated description of the novel and its effect on readers. I bought the book in three volumes (Everyman’s Library) for ease of handling and finished it in a few weeks. I enjoyed Anna Karenina more, but there was a great enjoyment in reading it late at night. One had something to eagerly return to before the day’s weary end. I was less impressed with the battle scenes and catastrophes, but found the weaving of peoples’ lives through turbulent and remarkable times into a rich and thought provoking tapestry to be so worth the long read. I think everyone one says ‘Wow!’ when finished, both for making a real reading effort and for experiencing a novel everyone talks about, but very, very few ever read.

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