Read because you enjoy it, not to seek parallels to the present.
An associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Richard Hughes Gibson is the author of Forgiveness in Victorian Literature: Grammar, Narrative, and Community (2015). He also co-directs the Manibus Press, an occasional publisher of artists’ books.
A few nights ago, War and Peace gave me a migraine. It wasn’t because I was wracking my brains to remember if “Lyolya” was a diminutive for Hélène, also known as Elén, also known as Princess Elena Vasilievna Kuragina, also known as Countess Bezukhov. I wasn’t struggling to recall where I’d last met a certain minor character (was he in Nikolai Rostov’s regiment?). I wasn’t stuck in an interminable battle sequence, as lost as Pierre on the field at Borodino. No, my problem was that I was totally captivated by what was going on. I could feel the muscles tensing first around my eyes and then across my forehead, but I kept turning pages, desperate to learn what terrible outcome awaited Natasha Rostov as she yielded to the charms of the playboy Anatole Kuragin, despite her engagement to the altogether admirable Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. It’s tempting to pass off the next day’s migraine as an injury incurred in the perilous pursuit of culture. But the truth is, I knowingly courted that reading hangover.
As has been widely reported, the pandemic has generated a revival of interest in long books like War and Peace, as readers have found that they now have more than enough time to conquer a thousand-page novel or a multi-volume presidential biography. Online book vendors are reporting a bump in sales of the colossal classics by Dickens and Trollope. Some 3,000 people joined the literary review A Public Space for its #TolstoyTogether club, which began in March and concluded, eighty-five days later, in June. Other online ventures have tackled David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1,079 pages), Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1,072 pages), and James Joyce’s Ulysses (730 pages).
As welcome as this news is to this English professor, I have been somewhat disheartened by how journalists explain the interest of these books. Does the appeal of these books—War and Peace in particular—really lie in their correspondence to our current moment? Certainly, the surge of interest in Albert Camus’s The Plague fits that characterization. But when articles such as a recent one in The Economist opine that Tolstoy’s novel contains “Parallels with today’s crisis [that] are inescapable,” this seems to me not only questionable but reductive. That someone might read War and Peace—which, after all, features no plagues—in order to think about something other than the pandemic doesn’t seem to have crossed the authors’ minds.
But the most troubling thing that’s been left out of these dispatches is what’s been keeping me up at night: the pleasure of reading this sprawling story—“as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other,” as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky write in the introduction to their 2007 translation of War and Peace. While I suppose it’s possible that thousands of people worldwide are consuming daily rations of War and Peace like bowls of raisin bran (full of moral fiber!), my suspicion is that those who make it all the way to the end—who cross the vast expanse—do so because they are gaining more than just timely moral or social insights. They are discovering the special pleasures of reading long books.
In her wonderful apology for pleasure reading, “How Should One Read a Book?” (1932), Virginia Woolf wisely observed that “From different books we must ask different qualities. Simple as this sounds, people are always behaving as if all books were of the same species—as if there were only tortoises or nothing but tigers.” Woolf mades this statement in order to disentangle expectations about poetry from those of fiction, and those of biography and memoir (which she judged generally less interesting stylistically) from the other two. Each, she proposed, offers its particular pleasures, which we can, through certain kinds of careful attention to matters of form and technique, grow better at appreciating.
I want to suggest that the “tortoises and tigers” lesson applies to long books as well. Let’s call them behemoths, ones that, in Woolf’s words, “have a great deal in common; they always overflowing their boundaries; they are always breeding new species from unexpected matches among themselves.”
First, there is the pleasure of the investment of time that behemoths demand. No one reads War and Peace in one sitting, or even in a week. (As Alan Jacobs has observed in The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction , “many books become more boring the faster you read them.”) Because behemoths take a while to work through, these stout books and their principals become regular companions. In his autobiography, Anthony Trollope argued that the novelist cannot make lifelike characters unless first
he live with them in the full reality of established intimacy. They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams.… And, as here, in our outer world, we know that men and women change,—become worse or better as temptation or conscience may guide them,—so should these creations of his change, and every change should be noted by him. On the last day of each month recorded, every person in his novel should be a month older than on the first.
Behemoths provide the reader-side equivalent of Trollope’s creative process. Pierre and Natasha receive my last thoughts as I lie down to sleep, and they are often on my mind when I wake. They are not just characters in a book; they are part of a daily ritual. And just as time is passing out here, in our “outer world,” so, too, does time pass within the novel. War and Peace ultimately spans seven years, but the narrative is composed of a series of incidents that often take place over a few days, a pace that matches the movement of time for a reader like me who consumes a few chapters a day. Behemoths can thereby convey a sense that one isn’t simply following a plot but conducting life alongside the book’s inhabitants. This “established intimacy” helps to explain why the readers of behemoths will often speak of “missing” the characters (as a member of my own War and Peace book club wrote of Natasha) after the reading concludes. That loss, I’m suggesting, is real. It is the loss of a pleasure.
This extended companionship with the book and its denizens is connected to another pleasure: the pleasure of processing your own experience as it is reflected and refracted by a long-running book. To suggest that a novel’s parallels with the pandemic are “inescapable” is to make behemoths sound too much like the serious business of daily life. It crowds out pleasure for as long as reading a behemoth lasts—and that’s a significant loss.
Recently, a friend remarked after our three-month traversal of Dante’s Commedia: “I see Dante everywhere.” The poem had become for him more than a pleasing reading experience. Dante had become my friend’s conversation partner, much as readers of Tolstoy have found they can relate, especially today, to the novel’s emotional extremes.
I am suggesting that behemoths are more than just plots and sets of characters. We should think of them as vast thinking spaces into which we bring our pressing thoughts and cares and out of which we bring instruments for reflection on our “outer world.” Here is perhaps a point where behemoths bear some resemblance to other mammoth books, in particular, “big idea” books by philosophers, historians, and social theorists. The best of these—for example, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America—offer similar pleasures for the reader in making analogies and experiencing startling moments of recognition. Indeed, I wonder if the ultimate test of all mammoth species is not the correctness of their arguments but whether they offer readers commodious spaces for their own thinking.
Next, connected with the idea of space, is the related pleasure of navigating and coming to understand the principles of a behemoth’s construction. Here again, Woolf’s essay is useful: “The thirty-two chapters of a novel…are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building,” yet using a building material, words, far more “impalpable than bricks.” For Woolf, to take full satisfaction from a novel requires that the reader step back from the immediate goings-on of the plot to consider how the artist arranges the pieces, how the parts build on each other or play against one another, how the reader threads his or her way through.
With behemoths, these matters of construction are, of course, of even greater importance given the enormous mass of material to be managed. In some cases, the organizing devices are plain. In others, as in Ulysses, one may need a guide to see the entirety of its architectural plan. (Even students who just don’t like Joyce’s novel, I’ve found, can’t help feeling some awe in—and thereby deriving some pleasure from—watching how Joyce so skillfully manages multiple systems.)
War and Peace is somewhat infamous for its seeming lack of organization, prompting Henry James to rank it as the foremost of the “large, loose baggy monsters” that came out of Russia in the nineteenth century. Yet even if Tolstoy doesn’t operate on a Joyce-like masterplan, the text isn’t entirely erratic. Beyond the limits of the novel, the action is held together by the Napoleonic Wars. More subtly, the book also operates with a sprawling logic I call the permutation game. As characters from separate plotlines in a long narrative gradually converge, there is special pleasure in connecting their many stories.
The permutation game is most conspicuous in the novel’s marriage market, as the various possible combinations of the eligible ladies and gentlemen are explored. Once one picks up on the game, one has the delight of guessing which combination Tolstoy will explore next. Meanwhile, the permutation game is also playing out on the war side of the novel, reaching its crescendo when Pierre meets Field Marshal Kutuzov at Borodino. Early in the book these two characters would seem to have no chance of meeting, but gradually, an intricate network emerges in which all of the disparate actors are located and connected. Such a vision is the goal toward which behemoths generally aspire: literary unity.
Twelve years ago. Nicholas Carr announced that the Internet was robbing us of the cognitive wherewithal to tackle War and Peace, a claim that led the media theorist Clay Shirky to reply that “no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting.” In Shirky’s view, Carr’s observation wasn’t indicative of changing patterns of consumption—television had long since killed the big book; it was rather of the iconic status of Tolstoy’s novel. “The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past,” Shirky wrote, “The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace.”
We need to be careful about overestimating the significance of pandemic reading habits, of course. Three thousand enrollees in a virtual book club is a drop in the bucket compared to the daily number of Netflix viewers. Yet recent developments do suggest that Carr’s fears about mass attention deficit disorder and Shirky’s sweeping conclusions about the end of big books were a bit premature. People can still read War and Peace. More importantly, they can still enjoy it.