Thursday, May 26, 2011

Slow reading: Tolstoy's War and Peace

You've heard of slow food, right?

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about the movement:

Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. It was the first established part of the broader Slow movement. The movement has since expanded globally to over 100,000 members in 132 countries. Its goals of sustainable foods and promotion of local small businesses are paralleled by a political agenda directed against globalization of agricultural products.

I mentioned in a January post that I'd just begun to read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, in the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I mentioned that the novel is 1,213 pages long. I referred to "the hours it will take to read" this classic work of fiction.

That was four months ago. Almost five. See where I'm going here?

I've just finished Volume Two, Part II, which puts me about a third of the way through Tolstoy's masterwork. At this rate, I'm not even going to make it to the finish within a year, which is what I kind of sort of promised myself at the outset.

It's not that I'm not enjoying War and Peace. It keeps getting better. And I even like the pace of it, the discursive byways, the sharp portraits of characters that I suspect I'm never going to meet again. Meandering through Tolstoy, you can't miss the fact that 19th century Russians really loved to read.

I made myself a couple of promises when I started out, puzzling through the French opening in which Anna Pavlovna Scherer speaks her mind on the subject of the Antichrist, a.k.a. Napoleon. A couple of promises in addition, I mean, to the kind of sort of promise to get through the volume in a year.

First, I promised myself I would continue to read other fiction in parallel, because I knew there was no way I'd be able to put this ultra-long novel ahead of everything else on my list until I crossed the finish line. I've kept that promise.

Second, I promised myself I would keep making regular progress, however slowly, until I do finish the novel. I was determined not to set myself up as I had vis-à-vis the books I wrote about in September, in Unhappy reading experiences: Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (still unfinished on my bedside shelf, bookmarked at page 309); or Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War (which I might or might not return to before I shuffle off this mortal coil). So far so good on that front too.


A novel over the course of a year (or fifteen months at my current pace)? That's slow reading if ever there were such a thing.

One thing I wonder is whether I'd make better progress if I read on an iPad or a Kindle or a Nook. I may never know, I'm still pretty resistant to reading fiction on a screen. I have too many screens in my life. On the other hand, Tolstoy's 1,213 pages -- nearly 1,300 if you count the front and back matter -- are a compelling argument for as many books as you like in a 10 or 12 or 18 oz. device. I can assure you that it's a rare weekend morning when I throw Tolstoy into my bag and hike off to a café. I don't pack it into my carry-on when I travel. It's too darn big.

Still. I'm committed, at least for now, to "tree flakes encased in dead cow" (as William J. Mitchell described books as we've known them for the last several hundred years, in City of Bits).

Anyway, back to the question of slow reading:

Are there books you've stuck with over the long haul because you really wanted to read them but couldn't manage to plow straight through? Which books? Was it worth the time and effort in the end?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Six things about e-books
Unhappy reading experiences


  1. Steve -
    It's an odd, weird, and just bizarre that you're stuck reading a ratty little cop book at the same time you're reading Tolstoy. Even weirder for the author of the ratty little cop book :)


  2. Nice steve ..I think you know my childhood story w this one...this was what mom wanted to read when I was four,so she read it to us as our nighttime reading book, aloud, and that book of characters did fall out and we had to scramble to fig out what who was who...this may explain my patience w some really boring really fascinating books over the years on the side, like" gender and genius" ,a great example of the form...I've had alot of resistance w Rushdie 's language sometimes, and set his books away after 100 pgs, only to find later when I picked them up that they were brilliant...and readable ...I had to give in to the same sort of languorous process, then ended up being my favs...

  3. @Lindy: Who told you that you write "ratty little cop books"? That's downright untrue ... Anyway, variety is the spice of life, no?

    @Karen: Nope, didn't know that about your childhood. That's terrific. Maybe if I'd gotten Tolstoy instead of The Little Engine that Could and The Dr. Seuss Sleep Book (each a classic in its own right, mind you), I would have been able to tolerate Rushdie better than I do.

  4. I've stalled about midway thru the second volume of Proust. I'm going to get back to it. Not because I'm supposed to, but because it's fun. This past year I hadn't the concentration required tho. You have to be able to follow the thing for at least four pages (tight leading, small print) or you lose the train.

    The biggest book my mother read us was The Lord of the Rings. I remember her asking if she could skip some of the long boring descriptive passages. "NO!" my brother & I cried.

  5. @Glenn: You're doing better than me on Proust. That's another one I never made it through ... maybe half through Swann's Way, maybe thirty years ago. Oddly enough, I just used the opening lines of that novel in a post published for my work today.

    I think that people who love LoTR are really into the long boring descriptive passages, and people who find Tolkien not so interesting aren't. I loved every word. Read the whole series, The Hobbit included, ten times or more before I graduated high school. Boy, I wish I still had that much time to read......