War and Peace is a long book. At more than 1,400 pages in the edition I read, it is nearly double the length of the nearest page-count runner-up in the Well-Read Man project. You already knew it was a long book. But what you might not know is that the book is really only about 70 pages long, with a 1350-page introduction.
Most of the book tells the story of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, and how that war impacted the lives of some upper class Russian citizens. The story begins seven years before the war, in 1805, and follows the lives of a dozen or so characters from five aristocratic families through 1820. During that time, the characters fall in and out of love, join and leave the army, have children, die peaceful and painful deaths, and bump in to Napoleon and Russia’s Emperor Alexander in the most unexpected places. Some of the characters are actual people from history, and Tolstoy does a good job weaving the family dramas into a background of accurate journalism.
The story, though incredibly long, is still an easy read. Tolstoy has a light touch, and each chapter, despite the sometimes-heavy subject matter, is fresh and clear. And yet, none of this content really matters, for the real text of War and Peace is the treatise on history, free will, and political and military power that fills most of the last two epilogues of the book. It’s actually one of the most bizarre reading experiences I’ve ever had. Here you are, thinking that, with only 100 pages to go, you are finally going to see where the main characters’ lives take them, when BOOM, the story ends and a philosophical treatise appears.
The treatise isn’t bad; Tolstoy makes many interesting points about the role of the historian and the nature of trying to assess the meaning of societal changes through the lens of historical narrative. But the farther you get into the treatise, the more you realize that this is the book Tolstoy wanted to write, not the story of emperors and princes and peers and serfs.
One of Tolstoy’s core ideas is that powerful leaders like Napoleon do not bring about major societal changes, but that the individuals within the society collectively bring about the changes, sometimes in response to the leader’s will, but more often in response to contemporary events that are out of the control of that leader. He dedicates dozens of pages to explaining this idea, but it is dry, scholarly content. I think that Tolstoy realized this, and therefore, to demonstrate his theory, he wrote a compelling story about Napoleon and his invasion from the perspective of the individuals who, more than Napoleon, brought about the changes in Russia in response to the events surrounding Napoleon’s invasion. In that regard, it is a rich and complex book, deep with human drama and existential meaning, which is a good thing since there are some characters in the book to which you really don’t make much of an emotional connection.
War and Peace is a good book. But it is also very long. It took me around 60 hours to read carefully, plus another 15 hours to type up my notes. To be honest, I’m actually glad that the book ended with a long philosophical monologue. The main tale of the Franco-Russian conflict, while interesting, didn’t really teach me much beyond the bits of history that I didn’t learn in school. But when this story was paired with Tolstoy’s digression on free will and inevitability, the simple novel became something that made me ponder, think, and reflect on mankind and his history, and on how such things show up in modern world events. For all that, it was a brilliant and fitting end to a one-year, fifty-book reading extravaganza. Thank you, Leo.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.