Give War and Peace a Chance

Read “War and Peace.” Pushing Tolstoy’s novel, what an out-of-date idea to tackle. Who is going to buy this viewpoint?

Reading is fun to me. But telling you that “War and Peace” is fun, may be a step too far. Yet I can’t let go of the belief that reading this book, and many other books, would benefit the humans I see in my community and on the Internet.

I know that respecting a dead (or living) white male writer is unpopular in and of itself. Even worse than reading his writings is probably pushing the more distasteful idea of reading substantively. I know people that shun reading any book. They cannot think of a more horrible activity.

The world runs fast, who has time to read more than a handful of words on a screen. Short, pithy remarks are as far as we go to research a subject. I noticed this years ago when I thought I could do away with my dictionary or thesaurus. I would look up a word online and find quick, simple, incomplete explanations of that word. My old three-volume dictionary went into so much more detail that it came from a different world. A world where an in-depth look at words and ideas mattered.

I started to love reading when I was quite young and the love of my life in third grade read Greek myths. I pursued his interests in reading in order to have him love me. The love of this boy did not last, but the love of reading stuck.

I read even more, because I did not trust my mother. She told me things that sounded false to my young mind. I wandered the shelves of libraries. That’s where I found “The Second Sex” and other feminist literature to teach me alternative views to my mother’s “something horrible happens to girls when they get older.” I discovered the horrible was only natural. I also discovered a feminist viewpoint that suggested that a man without a penis is preferable to a man with one. So I also learned to filter my reading.

The women in “War and Peace” are far more traditional and sentimental than any 1960s feminist. The woman’s place is in the home in Tolstoy’s book. That does not strip them of depth, passion, and ability. They grow and change as they learn more about the world and themselves at every turn in this tumultuous period in history.

Today I’m amazed to see young women around me that forsake promotions in the careers they have forged. They cut back on their hours or stop working for a few years and chose to stay home with their children. A more traditional and sentimental view of themselves than the past fifty years have been teaching them. A young woman doctor I know who graduated in the top 3% of her class, actually said that she won’t pursue a more demanding medical specialty because she doesn’t want the long workdays. She sees herself as the primary caregiver for any children she may have and sees this view as still being the way of the world. A practical and emotional draw to domestic life that has not been severed by modern goalposts.

A quick, tweet-length summary could never define any one character or scene in the book. You need nearly 1,700 pages to get a partial grip on the characters and the story. Rereading may be required. The century I find myself living in relentlessly reduces ideas into flat simplifications. If you can’t fit it into a blog or Facebook post, forget it.

One of the most remarkable bit of writing in “War and Peace,” is the near-death experience of Prince Andrew on the battlefield. Foreshadowing the modern times his world was entering, Prince Andrew became disillusioned with the great leaders he idealized and lost his belief that war brings glory. As I read this part, I felt as if a dreamlike, born-again atheism was let lose on the world as a valid and attractive alternative.

Tolstoy critizes the egos of Napoleon and Alexander. Both French and Russian leaders believe the world revolves around them. But just as the earth had been displaced as the center of the universe, so have the ruling classes. Napoleon and Alexander ultimately have little to do with the overall progress of war and peace. The lowliest member of the army has more to do with the final outcome of the chaos that is war than those on the highest rung of the social order. The military orders that come from the two great leaders are mostly senseless and impossible to carry out. Small unknowns on the battlefield make or break the outcome. The serf triumphs or dies from his own decisions and wins or loses the battle. Tolstoy died just before the Russian revolution and “War and Peace” anticipated the uprising.

Today’s power players in politics and personality must conquer the electronic media. Streaming video, audio, quick bites of words, work on fleeting emotions rather than a depth of thought. The hard work of reading substantive fiction retains what is the best in human.

I agree with George Eliot when she said, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

If you limit yourself to social media posts and the mesmerizing bells and whistles of sound and colors appearing across screens, than you are merely a consumer and the consumed. Beware of what you buy into, passive scrolling may be the new opiate of the people. Escape a new servitude; read, read, read.

Read and open a narrative with the author, with yourself and the cumulative ideas already pinging around in your brain. Do not be force-fed gruel. Allow unknown worlds into your brain. Challenge your interpretation, go off on a tangent. Add to your experience, don’t just replicate them. Build upon ideas.

The Internet periodically publishes articles calling for the closure of libraries. The argument is that libraries are archaic, expensive, and unnecessary since the Internet is a superior source of information. I believe the real rebels of the future will be found in the libraries and bookstores where the reading selection is more haphazard and not media-driven. Used bookstores are especially of value, unusual and out-of-print books lurk about there. If everything can be found on a computer, who needs books, buildings, or librarians? But how would you know what is being filtered out of the information found on the screen?

Who needs arms and legs and a way to experience the outside world? (I know I’m missing out on a database eternity.) Why keep your music in a box connected to your head and miss out on listening to all the other music out there? Including the sight and sound of birds, the wind, the insects, the turning of a page.

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