On Being Halfway: War and Peace and Reading in a Pandemic

In the fall of 2021, my friend told me about a new book called Tolstoy Together. It was a record of a group read of War and Peace, Tolstoy’s 1869 masterpiece. In the very early days of the pandemic, writer Yiyun Lee invited anyone who wished to join her in a slow read of War and Peace: 15 pages a day for 85 days and then you’d be done a 1200-page novel. People participated on social media using the hashtag #Tolstoytogether and a year later, the book of the same name, a collection of people’s thoughts and tweets, plus some commentary from Lee, was being published.

I’ve read Anna Karenina but had never felt inspired to try War and Peace (even though I’ve owned a copy for over ten years). But now my friend was asking if I wanted to do our own version of #Tolstoytogether, following the program set out by Lee. I’d been having big trouble reading during the first year and a half (ugh) of the pandemic — I raced through romance novels and thrillers, reading them eagerly as an escape from reality, but anything that required more concentration or thinking sat unfinished for weeks. Some weeks I didn’t read anything at all (except gloomy tweets and Reddit threads). It took me almost a month to finish the new Sally Rooney novel, and that was notably not a 19th-century Russian novel unfolding over 20 years and featuring dozens of characters. Could I read War and Peace right now? Well, I’d probably never get to it on my own. Maybe 15 pages a day would be manageable. I said yes.

We gathered a group of friends who also wanted to try it and began on December 3, 2021. It was a slow start, like entering a conversation that began years ago — there are dozens of characters already speaking, years of Russian history you need to know for context. The titular war is the Napoleonic Wars, so add French history, too. As an accompaniment, I watched The Great (set in Russia about 60 years before War and Peace) and desperately tried to remember what I learned about Napoleon in high school history.

At first, the characters and plot were incidental to my enjoyment of War and Peace. The routine of reading every day was what kept me coming back. Sometimes I read three days’ pages at once, or read ahead to see what would happen the next day, but even if I wasn’t sticking exactly to the schedule, the book is just so long that the regularity of sitting down and reading a little bit about people in 19th-century Russia became a comfort. To begin War and Peace is to accept that you’ll be there for a while. No rush to see what happens next, no hurrying to finish to count it toward my book total for the year — just sitting down with the same book, day in and day out.

Slowly (very slowly), the characters have become real to me. Pierre’s confusion about the best way to live, which leaves him open to manipulation by others. Natasha’s liveliness and eagerness to be in love. Andrei’s melancholy and cynicism. Marya’s faith and misery and devotion to her family. Tolstoy’s narrator can be harsh and unforgiving — the smallest character flaws are recounted in devastating detail. A single sentence lays bare a character’s worst impulses. But almost in spite of that, there’s affection and understanding, too. The plot feels irrelevant; the novel follows several aristocratic Russian families through the Napoleonic Wars, which gives you something of a “what,” but really what isn’t this novel about? How to live a good life. How to love. How we can live a good life when we can’t escape our flaws. What to believe in. What it means to live during world-changing, world-ending events. (One thing I think about often is that Tolstoy is writing the Napoleonic Wars as historical fiction. How will people write about the pandemic in 50 years?)

I read on helplessly as characters make decisions that will surely make their lives harder (and let me tell you, absolutely everyone in this book is married to the wrong person, which I assume makes life pretty hard). I worry for brothers off at war and sisters who fall in love with scoundrels and aristocrats who are running out of money. The war is on, then there’s a peace treaty, then Napoleon comes back like a COVID variant that won’t go away. Some days, I don’t want to finish the book at all. Can’t I read a little bit about these people every day for the rest of time? Or at least for the rest of this pandemic? This year, instead of going back to my murder mysteries and romance novels, I want to read more big novels just like this — slowly, letting them unfold over days, as a constant companion during the bad news of case counts and lockdowns.

As of this week, we’re halfway through the book. Pierre has just told Natasha what’s in his heart, possibly the first time he’s ever been honest about how he feels. Almost joyful, he goes outside on a winter night to see the great comet of 1811 streaking by. This was a real comet that people all over the world claimed was a sign of various bad things to come. At several moments in the novel, characters look to the sky and experience an awakening — something humans have been doing for thousands of years. And Pierre isn’t afraid. The comet reminds him of “an arrow piercing the earth” that answers what’s in his soul (his love for Natasha). Even during a direct encounter with this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, he’s thinking about who he loves. We go on living our little lives in the midst of catastrophe and change. What else can we do? And 15 pages at a time, War and Peace continues.

Published by Kathleen

Children's book editor, writer, over-thinker. Sometimes a bookseller.

6 thoughts on “On Being Halfway: War and Peace and Reading in a Pandemic

  1. I’m on the 2nd Epilogue. I read W&P once 10 years ago. I forgot most of the book though. I might start it over once I finish because like you, I have a very slow and difficult time getting into the first part or two. The 2nd book/volume is the best.

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    1. I’ve been hearing people say that about the 2nd book. The start to the 3rd was definitely a bit of a downgrade — but looking forward to seeing what happens to everyone! They feel like real-life acquaintances by now.

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  2. I so enjoyed this post. I’m joined the W&P read-along this year, and really struggled at first (‘Who are all these people? I can’t possibly remember!’). But knowing I only had to do a chapter a day, and that there were others doing just what I was doing helped a lot. By now, I’m racing ahead a bit, as finally, I start to ‘get’ it and remember who all those characters are. Although it looks as though we may be suspending action for a while, in deference to the awful situation in Ukraine. Good luck with the second half!

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! It is a very strange time to be reading War and Peace, that’s for sure. This is our last week, actually, so we will finish it up, but I understand why you’d suspend your read-along for a while. When you’re ready to get back to it: you can do it!

      One thing I’ve found is that you get to know the characters the way you might in real life if you met all of these people at parties. You don’t necessarily know who will be most important or interesting to you, or, of course, where their lives will take them. In that way, it’s fascinating to read along not knowing who will pop back up and why.

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