A book for the social media age? War and Peace. Woody Allen once quipped: “I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was able to read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It's about Russia.” Very funny. But the 1200 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece will take a busy person more like twenty weeks to do justice to its vast tableau of Russian society during the Napoleonic wars.
In other words, it will keep you away from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for a very significant amount of time. Enough time to get the feel of a book again if you only ever consume stories via phone or tablet – and very short stories at that. Like, tweets. Diversion in itself is a Good Thing, but here are some positive reasons why reading this famous Russian novel in hardback is good for digital natives.
1. A physical book – in this case three books – confronts you with the miracle of the written word in a way that a digital text cannot. That marks on paper can communicate ideas, character and imagery across centuries, cultures and languages (in translation) is literally wonderful, but the marvel of it is obscured in the digital age. What rolls over a screen has an ephemeral character and is cheapened by the sheer quantity of “stuff” waiting to take its place. In contrast, the printed volumes of Tolstoy are a solid and tangible witness to what distinguishes humanity: the ability to contemplate life, reason and communicate what is universal.
2. And what is universal? Human nature, and its expression in character. Tolstoy gives us a group of people living within a society and tries to explain, mainly by describing their states of mind, why they behave as they do in different circumstances. We do not always like them but begin to understand them and become attached to some. A recent writer has described War and Peace as “the best novel ever written — the warmest, the roundest, the best story and the most interesting.” Warmth and roundness is largely missing in the stories of today, obsessed as they so often are with victimhood and “issues”. Tolstoy never limits his characters like that, and today’s writers and readers could learn a lot from him in that respect.
3. War and Peace is a demanding read, and that is no bad thing for minds constantly tempted by what is diverting and simplistic. Innumerable actors, often with multiple names; contrasting locations and social settings, war reports, philosophical epilogues – all take efforts of memory and patience. To quote the introduction to the edition I happen to have: “Pleasure has to be purchased from the book much the same as from the ascent of mountains; the way at times is unpromising, the reader has to summon up his energy and take plenty of trouble; but when he reaches the summit and looks back, his recompense is a magnificent one, the landscape spreads out beneath him in all its immensity…”
Nothing of lasting worth comes without effort. So, switch off your phone, get down to the library, and prepare for a long haul that will repay you a hundredfold.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.