7 Tips to Help You Read War and Peace
In case you missed it, I have now read War and Peace for the second time. It took me roughly a month and I did manage to read two other books during the month as well.
This is not in any way meant to sound boastful. I enjoy a classic novel along with the best of them. But when I posted this on my Instagram, quite a few people commented and messaged to say that they had always wanted to read War and Peace but the size of it terrified them and ultimately put them off.
I'm going to ask you to bear with me here as an analogy is coming. Reading War and Peace is a little like training for a marathon. In fact a lot of the tips I'm about to give you could apply to running 26.2 miles when the furthest you've run is for a bus. The same tips apply. So if you want to read War and Peace (or run a marathon), but do not have a Scooby Do where to start, then I've put together 7 tips to help. Let's get stuck in shall we?
Tip #1 - Read with a Friend
Ok total honesty here, I have never actually run a marathon. But I have a very good friend who did and the first thing she told me was to run with a friend. Mainly because the idea of 26.2 miles stretching ahead of you without anyone to talk to can seem overwhelming. We want to have fun along the way. Instead of 26.2 miles we have 1350 pages ahead of us. Instead of the pain of road running, sprints, inclines and long runs we have a wonderful immersion in Russian society in the early 19th Century. Reading is a bit good that way.
I was lucky enough to read with my friend @fictionaddictionangela and I enjoyed the experience so much more. We arranged to have a fortnightly conversation over Zoom where we discussed what we thought, who our favourite characters were and so on. We also used the time for a good natter about life in general. This general chat included rock star hair dos and skin whiter than frozen butterball turkeys I kid you not.
Tip #2 - Do I need to research?
Just like running a marathon, you wouldn't necessarily start without having some idea of what is to come. You might hire a coach, read a book, buy Runners World magazine. But before you start to panic and think it is essential to take a history course then I'm here to give you a quick potted history of the time the novel is set in. History info, marathon tips and reading War and Peace, is there nothing I am not giving you today? You can thank me later.
After the French Revolution which saw much of the royalty of France parted with their heads and a Republic established in France, the other Kings of Europe began to get a bit twitchy about the new fangled French Republican ideas. Keen to ensure that their heads stayed firmly attached to their own bodies, they formed a complex and changing system of alliances with each other against France. Ideally to restore the King to the throne there, but also if there was an invasion by France, the alliances would back each other up.
Napoleon, ambitious and taking advantage of weakness in the French Republic, seized power and crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804. In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia as he believed Russia had broken its promise not to trade with Great Britain. Napoleon invaded with an army of roughly 650,000 men, getting as far as Moscow, but returned to France with only 30,000 men.
Tip #3 - Pace Yourself
You wouldn't go from only running when it is absolute necessary, such as for that early bus, straight into running 26.2 miles and the same is true for War and Peace. Break it down.
Treat the novel as 4 Volumes plus an epilogue. We read the Penguin Classics paperback which runs at just over 1350 pages. At first glance this seems daunting. So I broke it down and imagined each Volume as 4 separate books, each approximately 300 odd pages, roughly the size of a paperback novel. This also helped with setting targets with Angela. Each volume is split into parts and we agreed what part we would get to before discussing it. You know how fast you read, so you and your friends set your targets.
If you think this is any way cheating, just remember that Tolstoy himself always meant for War and Peace to be serialised.
Tip #4 - Get the Nutrition right
If I was running a marathon, I would ensure I was properly hydrated and energised during the training with water, gels and in some cases Kendall Mint Cake. The same is true of War and Peace. Ensure you are properly hydrated with coffee, tea and lots of cake. We don't want any energy dips or worst of all to hit 'The Wall'.
Tip #5 - Help! I can't seem to remember who anyone is
Don't Panic! We couldn't either. Reading that first volume, is just like starting a new job. On your first day, you are introduced to everyone in the office and instantly forget their names. Or in the case of one of my old colleagues, call his boss Clive for 6 years when his name was in fact Carl.
Tolstoy will introduce you to practically everyone in the novel in that first part. Options to help with this are to mark the handy list of characters usually found in the back of the book. The Penguin Classic certainly contains this. Angela downloaded a handy bookmark listing the characters and their relationship to one another.
But don't get hung up on this. After the first part, and just like that new job, you will start to remember who everyone is and then you will wonder what you were ever worried about.
Tip #6 - Take a Rest
In order to ensure that runners don't overtrain, training for a Marathon involves taking regular breaks and resting. This could be during training, when a few days off is needed or during the race when you many need to walk for a minute or so.
The same is true for War and Peace. At the end of a couple of the volumes, I took a break and read something completely different (well hello there Roald Dahl). This meant that I could keep the reviews coming for the blog, have a break and return refreshed to the novel. I hadn't forgotten anything and if I had, my Penguin Classic included a handy chapter summary at the back of the book. I imagine other editions would have the same.
Tip #7 - The Epilogue
I have a degree in history, but even this did not prepare me for the epilogue. In fact, I wish I had read this when doing my historiography modules as it would have helped immensely with some of the essays about the study of history and its methods. At the end of Part 4, I said goodbye to the characters in the novel I had come to love, been transfixed by this wonderful story, Napoleon was on his way back to France and now we have epilogue in which we are going to discuss the historical novels in quite some detail. What hell was this?
Using our marathon analogy, we had hit the wall. Angela contemplated giving up and dropping out of the race. It was time for one last bite of that Kendall Mint Cake to get us over the line. Keeping each other going, we read it all. We had finished it! I didn't understand it. Just remember if we can do it, so can you!
Tip #8 - Enjoy it!
You knew I was going to give you an extra tip didn't you? This tip is probably the most important. The novel is readable, and marvellous. It is like reading a soap opera set against a backdrop fo war. And at the end of it all, you'll be able to say I have read War and Peace and deservedly be very proud of that.
Who knows, you may even have run a marathon at the same time!
I do hope you've enjoyed my tips. Please let me know if you have read the novel and have any more tips to share. I'll be back on Thursday with the book I read after finishing War and Peace. Using my marathon analogy for one last time, I was now sipping cocktails on a beach after winning Olympic Gold.
Have a great week. xx