I just finished reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For real. I guess last night when I read the final page, it was a bit like reaching the top of the print version of Mount Everest. Having accomplished this literary feat, I certainly have enough material floating around in my head to reflect upon in more than one blog post. You may never read this novel, but feel free to join me and reflect on what it meant, what it means, and what it may mean in the future.
The first question is: Why?
Why read War and Peace, the historical fiction novel written way back in 1869, which is often referenced whenever we speak of something super long and boring?
I simply decided to read War and Peace before it is too late. I will explain.
Back in 2011, I happened upon Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and his insights validated my own feelings that I was losing a grip on how to deeply focus. We still read as much as we ever did, but in little snippets of skimming blogs and posts and scrolling through content on our mobile devices.
Several references about our lack of ability to read and absorb long passages of text were made by Nicholas Carr. Bruce Friedman, a medical school faculty pathologist at the University of Michigan, is quoted in The Shallows, stating, “I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it. (Carr, 2011, p.7)” (Are you still with me? You have passed the three or four paragraph mark. I dare you to finish this blog post. And you don’t have to read War and Peace- I promise.)
Carr also quotes Clay Shirky, digital media scholar at NYU, suggesting in a 2008 blog post, “No one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting (Carr, 2011, p.111).” He goes on to explain long novels of the past are not worth the time invested and “were just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access”.
Today, we have access to live information on a global scale at our fingertips and in our pockets. We can view millions and millions of youtube videos, instagram photos, tweets, and memes created by people all over the globe. Are we really “information rich”? Carr raised this question with the warning that thoughtful people may “…slip comfortably into the permanent state of distractedness that defines online life” (p. 112). In 2011, I took that warning very seriously and I still do.
So, I read War and Peace. And it was truly worth the effort.
Stay tuned for Part 2 – if you finished this post- and I’ll reflect on what it’s all about.