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Why Should I Read This? War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

February 1, 2015
A simple title and cover for such a complicated book.

A simple title and cover for such a complicated book.

Sometimes I want to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, but every time I start reading it, I decide I don’t want to read it anymore.  I think I should like it.  It’s about war (unless the title is misleading), and I read war books.  But if it’s about war, it seems to take a long time to get to the war.  A novel titled War and Peace should start with the war and then get to the peace later.  And that’s just my first complaint.  When it comes to War and Peace, there are numerous reasons for a guy like me to not read it.

For one thing, War and Peace is really long.  I don’t have the attention span for long books anymore.  Also, those big, long books are heavy, and they hurt my neck, and when I download long books on my e-reader, it’s difficult for me to go back and flip pages to refresh my memory.  I can do it, but it’s not as enjoyable as it is with a shorter, easier book.

To make matters worse, War and Peace is written in Russian.  I don’t have anything against Russian.  I just don’t understand the language, which means that I have to read a translated version of War and Peace.  I don’t trust translations.  A lot of an author’s voice and flowery prose (when I’m in the mood to appreciate it) can get messed up in a translation.

Plus, Russian names give me a headache.  Again, I have nothing against Russian names, but some of them in War and Peace are long, and there are a lot of characters with long, similar names.  Maybe it’s just a psychological thing with me.  Maybe I’m just easily confused.  At any rate, I have a tough time with the characters’ names in War and Peace.

Even though length and language are two decent reasons not to read a great novel, they might not be enough.  If you think about it, War and Peace isn’t that long.  When you compare War and Peace to a book series today like Game of Thrones, then War and Peace would be much shorter.  And it’s been completed already.  The reader doesn’t have to worry about the author dying before finishing the story.  War and Peace is done.  I’d rather read a long completed novel than an ongoing series that might not ever get finished.

Maybe the Russian names aren’t that bad either.  Most people can figure out the names in Game of Thrones, and there are a lot of crazy names in that series.  When I binge-watched Game of Thrones, I took the time to learn most of the names.  If I can learn all (or most) of the names in Game of Thrones without reading the books, then I should be able to learn the names in War and Peace.

Plus, I’m pretty sure War and Peace is pretty good.  It’s been translated into just about every language that literature can be translated into.  That doesn’t happen arbitrarily.  Sometimes classics are only classics because the academic types say they’re classics.  I’m guessing that in the case of War and Peace, it’s a classic even without the help of literature professors.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s worth the effort to read it.

Since War and Peace is public domain, anybody can rewrite it and Americanize all the Russian names.  Maybe it would be a bastardization, but it might sell books.  You could even call it a bastardization in the title.  Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace: The Bastardized American Version.  I’d read a bastardized American version of War and Peace.  I’d even write a bastardized version of War and Peace, except then I’d have to read then real version of it first.

War and Peace; The Bastardized American Version could be simple to write.  Pierre Bezhukov could be renamed Peter Ryan.  Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky would be renamed Prince Andy Brewer.  The characters are still Russian, but the names would be much easier keep up with for guys like me.  Every weapon from the early 19th century could be described with intricate detail.  A bunch of ironically dismissive comments about the growing United States could be made by both French and Russian characters.  It could be great.

If the modern author could keep the bastardized version to under 500 pages, I might be able to read it.  But I wouldn’t be able to brag about it later.  If I ever read War and Peace, I want to feel good about bragging about it later.

*****

What do you think?  Is War and Peace worth reading?  Can I brag about it if I finish reading it?  What other classic novels would you like to read but probably won’t?  Which translation of War and Peace is the best one?  Does the translation even matter?  Would you read the brand new Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace: The Bastardized American Version?

*****

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48 Comments
  1. I checked it out of the library and got through page 6. It’s not just the length; the style is just not as engaging. If you finish it you deserve cake and wine, or whatever is your favorite food and drink.

    • “It’s not just the length; the style is just not as engaging.”

      Maybe you just read the wrong translation. I’ve heard the translation matters, but I don’t know which one is the best.

    • I actually read it, I didn’t like it and after 20 years I can’t remember anything except Tolstoy would suddenly break into long philosophical tracts.

  2. I read it a few years ago and really liked it, although I must say, I liked the war much more than the peace. I find it hard to keep all the Russian names straight, but I don’t think you could transplant it to another location without totally changing the story. It is long though. One idea is to listen to the audiobook while you’re doing something else, like putting together a puzzle, or in my case, playing Minecraft. That’s how I read Middlemarch.

    • If I listen to War and Peace while watching a football game (I’ll have to wait a few months for the next football game), can I still brag that I’ve read War and Peace?

      How many football games would I have to watch in order to finish listening to War and Peace?

      • I think it counts if you can remember the plot at all afterwards. You could probably do it in 20 games, not counting pre-game shows.

  3. I don’t read any book about war, point. Speaking of books that are long and not engaging, I can nominate Ken Follett though others may disagree. I have a copy of Pillars of the earth which I bought when I was in my 20s. It still sitting unfinished in my bookshelves. Tom Clancy is another one I have no desire to read along with John Grisham. Someone I know told me they write masculine novels. I don’t believe that somebody. For me, there is no gender attached with books, but then again where is the phrase chick-lit came from I wonder… I don’t read those too. I don’t like romance novels. Romance you do it in real life instead of reading about it. I better stop because I am not coherent enough to make judgment. Must be the flu.

  4. Add zombies or vampires or whatever, and you’ve got yourself a best seller on your hands.

  5. I don’t know but I want too.. I think for me it’s all about the bragging rights. How many people out there have really read it….especially those who I roll with. They don’t read much and would think I’m a genius it I did it….hehe!

  6. War and Peace is the perfect novel. There are a few different story lines on the personal level that fit within the larger story line of the war. Both the macro and the micro are addressed with the proper weight and everything merges in the end with an epically satisfactory and cathartic resolution. There is also a philosophical underpinning to the entire novel.

    The characters are tough. I suggest keeping a log of them at first. After page 400 you will be hooked and at the end you will be happy you put in the effort. I know that’s a lot to ask but it is a fantastic read after you get over the hump. Pierre is fascinating.

    As for the translation, Russian translates beautifully into English. It might not be the same as reading the original Russian but who knows? It is great in its own right in English (IMO).

    I highly encourage you to make the effort.

  7. If I was going to read a really long novel just so I could have bragging rights for reading a really long novel, I’d choose one that was at least in a genre I enjoy. I would not read any novel solely for the bragging rights, though, partly because -I- don’t care about that, so why should I expect any of my friends to be impressed, either?

    The Literature Experts go on about how tastes in reading change and new authors shouldn’t think that, just because a book is a classic, people want to read more like it now, yet they also tell us that we MUST read such-and-such book and like it because it’s a classic and people will think us uneducated and uncouth if we say we haven’t read it. I wish they’d at least make up their collective mind.

    Would I read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace: The Bastardized American Version? Maybe, if it was funny. A satire of both the original novel AND of people who read ponderous novels to make themselves look good could be entertaining, if it was done right.

  8. I’ve attempted to read War and Peace several times, but I can’t get past the Battle of Borodino. I know too much about the Napoleonic Wars to be able to swallow Tolstoy’s propaganda. It’s as if the Confederacy were victorious in Gone With The Wind.

  9. It’s definitely worth reading! You just have to get into it a bit further. The story is compelling and yes you will find war scenes.I read it about 10 years ago and hope to ‘re-read it soon. I would hate the English bastardized version you propose. If you read the original, I think you will be hooked within a few chapters.

  10. I read it over the summer because it was on my school reading list for the next school year, and I’d thought I’d get a head start on it. And then I came back to school and then later, the time came for the actual study of the book, I realized that I remember nothing of the book, and I had to read it again.
    Now, I still remember almost nothing of it, and there is no way I’m going to read it for the third time. In defense of the book, the second time reading it was easier than the first – but it’s probably not the kind of recommendation you want to hear. 🙂

  11. Yes, it’s worth reading. It’s worth the effort. Once you get into it – a hundred pages or so? – you won’t want it to end.

  12. Brush up on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia first. Then read anything from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and any other writer who wrote in Russian. In any language. And then you won’t need to brag.

  13. I tried to read Anna Karenina – twice – but couldn’t get around the Russian names, despite having watched two movie versions of it. (Why do Russians always have about three versions of their name depending on the context? It makes it very complicated to follow who is who.) I don’t know if I could do War and Peace because of this. Life is short and I’m already 53…

  14. I’ve got War and Peace on my to-read list… I believe there’s a time and place for all books, so I’ll come around to it someday… if only so that I can brag that I read it 😛

  15. I did W&P two years ago, after attempting to read it about three times previously. I enjoyed it a lot, and recommend it to anyone who likes to read war novels (lots of people who don’t like war stories can’t get through the war-ness). Personally, 75% of my reading has an element of war to it, so I figured I should give it another go.

    There were three things I did differently –
    1 – Translation, I found the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation much easier to read.
    2 – I abbreviated names to the first section of their name – and would let language and personality tell me which Nickolai we were talking about, and if I couldn’t figure it out, I just rolled with it and pushed on
    3 – I read it with my sister – and we would convince one another to keep going when we wanted to quit.

    I would so read your Americanised Bastardised version – because I’m used to seeing badly americanised stuff – we always have a good laugh at them. So yes… as satire, I’d be interested. ha.

    Great post! I enjoyed this and it made me think about WHY i read some of the books I have (and in this case I realised I did it for bragging rights).

  16. Hmmm, first of all, I absolutely saw myself in this post; especially when you were complaining about the names and length!
    Though I’ve been keeping the book for 2 months now, still, I’ve only made to P.20!
    I believe one of the reasons that got me deciding on reading this book, besides me being a fanatic of Russian Literature, this very Novel was and still on top 10 of the world’s most “must-read” novel and literary works. This really drove me into reading it!
    I feel bad every time I realise that I still didn’t make it half way through, still, when I get back into reading I love it, appreciate it and enjoy it more.

    I think you should focus on the reason of why you chose to read it. And if you don’t see that you have an enough excuse to read it, then quit.
    But, such a novel, must be a great masterpiece for a GOOD REASON. I’d advise you to keep reading it, regardless, and trust me the END will proven to be worth it.

    Great post indeed!

  17. I heard the book is quite productive and a classic. It’s already in my Wishlist but I think I might have second thoughts on my idea of reading War and Peace. But could anyone brief me on the book “The Animal Farm” by George Orwell?

  18. I felt like this with Anna Karenina but eventually got through it and kind of enjoyed it. I read it on holiday when it was the last book I had with me (in pre-Kindle days) so that may be the key 😉

  19. War and Peace, it’s on my list of the books I am afraid to read. But to answer your questions:
    – Is War and Peace worth reading? I have the feeling that it is.
    – Can I brag about it if I finish reading it? Definitely! It’s one of the reason why I want to read it someday and finish it.
    – What other classic novels would you like to read but probably won’t? Well, The Count of Monte Cristo is long but I really want to read it.
    – Which translation of War and Peace is the best one? I don’t know about that.
    – Does the translation even matter? Of course.
    – Would you read the brand new Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace: The Bastardized American Version? Hmm…I think I’ll stick with the original version.

  20. All of my thoughts on War And Peace are in a post I had written; ‘Through Time and Across The Planet’.
    Well, keeping it short, War And Peace inspired me to change about two to three times while I was reading it. It was quite silly of me, really, but that’s the powerful effect of Tolstoy’s Masterpiece. Compared to it, Anna Karenina is dull as a rusted antique, though it retains it beauty once paid attention to.

  21. Classic lit is like classic film, it is very subjective. I went through a period of trying to read established classics and watch classic films. The headaches which ensued thought me that classic is an arbitrary term. Just sayin’.

  22. Ugh, that bastardised American version idea sends a shiver down my spine (in the bad way, not the sexy one). Of course, the book is long, and yes, it is even lengthy many a times, but distorting the names would be just wrong. That’s like ‘mexicanising’ the Great Gatsby by calling Nick “Pedro”, Gatsby “Antonio” and Daisy “Maria”!! That is just cruel, very egocentric, and, I think also a tiny bit racist. I very much disapprove!!

    B x

  23. LOL I tried reading it when I was young and sought to improve my mind with great literature. But those names!!!!! I couldn’t keep track of who was who.

  24. Awesome post and I can totally relate. 😀
    When I was kid I tried to read a Finnish translation of Nabokov’s Lolita. Erotic novel, they said… Hah! The 13-year-old me was gravely disappointed when Humbert started describing sceneries and wouldn’t stop! Lolita remains unread in my bookshelf as does the other classics I bought in the attempt to civilize myself…
    As for War and Peace, it always seemed like too heavy to handle…

    • Give Lolita another chance. Humbert is hilariously in love with Lolita. It is one of my favorite books even though my sister yelled at me in a restaurant because I told her that it was a wonderful love story, and that even pedifiles can fall deeply in love and give their life to save their beloved, A truely great novel.

      • I did give up reading it after like 150 pages, so Lolita definately deserves another chance. Who knows… Maybe this year… 🙂 Yeah, I don’t mind pedophilia in fiction at all. I think it’s a great way to topics that are otherwise “taboo” in our culture.

  25. I’ve found that my ability to read Tolstoy is almost entirely dependent on the translation. I started/stopped Anna Karenina 4-5 times before finding a version that I loved enough to finish in a few days. As for War and Peace… I’ve met so few people who really enjoyed it. Finding literary value in a book, and enjoying it are two completely different things.

    Great post!

  26. I have read War and Peace but I’m not sure I’d read it just to brag – life’s too short! I’ve never re-read it which is usually an indicator of a good book for me. I honestly can’t think of a classic I couldn’t get through, but Ulysses made me want to claw my eyes out so that’s probably the closest.

  27. I like big books and I cannot lie, but I’m still ten pages from the end of War and Peace and I can’t remember what it’s about nor can I make myself finish it. I need someone to publish War and Peace The Comic Strip so I know how it ends.

  28. I relly loved this blog post.

  29. Alex Hurst permalink

    I bought a copy of War and Peace when I came to Japan because it was the only book in the store in English.

    Later, a friend came over, looked at my (then) burgeoning shelves, saw War and Peace, and asked “So… did you actually read that, or is it just on your shelf to make you look smarter?”

    Haha, I really do have every intention to read it… some day. But there’s just too many other giant books of literature I want to get through first. 😛

  30. I like big books and I cannot lie, butt…I have yet to pull the trigger on War and Peace. And reading the above comments, i doubt that I will. Thanks for the post.

  31. Reblogged this on kylaspeaks.

  32. I read it twice, both many years ago, about ten years apart. It really holds up, but you need to be interested in that period of history. Otherwise, forget it. Tolstoy’s odd philosophy is sprinkled here & there, especially in the second epilogue, and has a certain truth to it, but real historians wouldn’t think it very relevant these days.

    Why has no one mentioned a little cheating to keep the plot & characters straight in one’s head: watch the movies? There’s a short American version and a six-hour Russian version, and then I think the BBC did one. Each is a different edit of the book, but any of them should simplify things for you a bit.

  33. its a great book. Also try reading The Kingdom of God is within you, its one of his great late works.

  34. Read the version translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They’re the masters of Russian-to-English translation. Other translations of Russian novels pale in comparison.

  35. Put it down and run get your copy of Absalom, Absalom… Remember it is in the corner where you threw it years ago rather than hitting yourself on the head with it again and again. Some books are not worth the time… If the thought of reading something makes you whimper and makes you want to take up scrapbooking for a hobby…STOP READING IT!I
    Imagine the horror of my “Classics Reading Club” at my branch library when I announced, “If you put the characters of Chekov’s plays in Emma’s drawing room… well, no one would be able to tell the difference except for the snow, vodka and wolves howling in the background.”
    The best book I have ever read because someone else suggested it is The Complete Works of Gogol. The man wrote 4-6 page short stories that had character development, plot and good endings (I don’t mean happy endings…He was Russian). Still to this day, I marvel when I think of his stories.
    I suppose you must read some stinkers to appreciate fully, THE LAST Report of Miracles at Little Big Horse, My Antonia, The Poisonwood Bible, And those epic novels by Sienkiewicz.
    I do NOT mean to hurt anyone’s sense and sensibilities. Please take this with a grain of salt- as it should be obvious that I am only on step 4,297 in my 15,000 step Faulkner recovery program.

  36. I read War and Peace in college. The war and the peace are intermingled throughout. The actual story is good. However there is a guy who takes up some of the book with political philosophy. He’s annoying. I am currently rereading it on my e-reader. The most annoying part this time was the introductory paeans to the novel. The first time I got through the names by just mangling them in my mind and going with the mangled version.

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