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Guide to Reading War and Peace

January 19, 2016

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A Beginner’s Guide to reading War and Peace

Guest blog by 'A Shropshire Girl'

Have you ever thought about reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace but don’t know where to begin or feel overwhelmed? Look no further. This guide will help you on your way to finishing War and Peace. 

A common reason people don’t read War and Peace is the length. It can be quite intimidating, but this is all a matter of perspective. 

When you look at the current bestsellers, many pass the 500-page mark. One survey found that the average length of books on the New York Times bestsellers list had increased by 25% over 15 years. Reading the War and Peace in this sense is no different to reading a book from the Game of Thrones

War and Peace

What is an important factor in finishing any book is not the book’s length but the reason why you are reading it. Finishing any novel involves commitment and if you want to finish War and Peace it’s essential to have a good motivation. If your aim is to read it as quickly as possible, to have more knowledge or to name drop then you might find yourself giving up before you finish. Make sure you read for a good reason so you when you feel like quitting, feel demoralized or impatient you won’t give up straight away.

A book should only really be considered too long when the author waffles on and the book could do with wide sections cut out or at least substantially edited. I personally find it a huge confidence boost in finished a long book and this is not the only benefit of reading longer novels, as seen here

The Russian style
Another off-putting feature is the Russian style. Russian literature is not like English literature, just as French literature is like neither English nor Russian literature. 

A big difficulty for non-Russians can be all the different names. Whilst it can be confusing for us, knowledge of the all the different patronymics, nicknames etc. were standard Russian knowledge. It’s also worth remembering that when you start a new book or TV series it takes time to learn who everyone is, so this is to be expected. You’ll never be automatically expected to know who everyone is. 

A good edition will have a list of the characters at the back and a great edition will have footnotes. Translators are the second authors. They place (or don't place) the stress and emphasis that heavily influences your understanding, experience and reaction to the story and its characters. A good edition and some patience will go a long way. If your edition doesn’t have a list of characters at the back, then a good tip is to do a Google search for a character list with all the nicknames, and keep a printed version inside your book for reference. 

Another classic staple in Russian writings are long digressions on backstories, various musings or completely unrelated tangents. Again, patience helps and if you are really struggling then try to think of it as a short story or novella within a story. Don’t be afraid of reading summaries online before reading as well; do what you find helpful and makes your experience more enjoyable.

So, here is my advice to anyone wanting to read War and Peace:

1. Ask yourself why do you want to read this? 
Do you genuinely want to experience the story or do you just want to tick some box or be able to name-drop? If you want to succeed, you need to have the proper motivation to fuel your commitment to reading some a long book.

2. Ask yourself what do I know about Russian literature? 
You might want to first read Tolstoy's shorter book Anna Karenina, to get a feel for the style. Alternatively, just be patient and try not to impose our standards and conventions onto War and Peace.

3. Set yourself a realistic weekly goal.
For instance, 'I will aim to read 150 pages each week'. Don’t feel guilty if you miss your target.

4. Ask yourself 'am I enjoying this?' 
If the answer is no, try reading another 100 pages and if you still feel the same then stop. Don’t worry about not knowing what is going on; sometimes it’ll make sense in the following pages. A book may be called a 'classic', but being a classic does not mean that anyone who reads this book will enjoy it. 

If you do finish War and Peace and enjoy it, then a great follow up is Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate, a War & Peace-esque epic set during the Battle of Stalingrad. 

Written by A Shropshire Girl, view her blog:

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