How to Read War and Peace
At 1,400-plus pages, War and Peace can seem daunting. Here's how to read it.
Where to Start
War and Peace is not so much difficult as it is long. Dig in, though, and you'll quickly see why Tolstoy's exuberant opus—set in the years just before, during, and after Napoléon's invasion of Russia—is arguably the greatest novel of all time. Within these pages, you'll find family drama, trenchant social observation, military history, brilliant discourse on the question of free will, and a love story for the ages.
What's in a Name
Before encountering Anna Pavlovna Scherer—the first of literally hundreds of characters—it's helpful to understand that traditional three-part Russian names can have masculine or feminine endings; this explains siblings with different last names. If the system makes you dizzy, take a shortcut—read just first names. Bear in mind that Russians are fond of nicknames. Thus Piotr = Petya; ditto Natalia, Natasha. Rule of thumb: When you're wondering, "Is this the same person?" the answer is yes.
Commit to 50 Pages
Tolstoy was a master storyteller with an uncanny grasp of human motivation—he understood not only his characters but also his readers, and kept the individual chapters remarkably brief. Trust that you'll soon be zipping along, with just 1,357 or so pages to go.
Dodge the Draft
At a certain point, you might be blown away by Tolstoy's genius for making palpable the tiniest details of 19th-century Russian life—the quartets sung after dinner, the tulle of Natasha's gown—while at the same time capturing profound universal truths. Or you might be so absorbed in wishing you were Natasha, about to go to her first ball, that you forget you're reading a book. That said, it would not be unheard of to get bogged down in the military minutia of the battlefield chapters. Were you to skim, even skip, parts of the Battle of Borodino, for instance, the literary police would not come knocking at your door.
The peace, the war, the intrigue—by the time you reach the end, you'll long for the story to go on forever. And in a sense it will, because you will never forget these complex, moving characters in all their gorgeous humanity, or the sweeping passions of a time before our own.