Its title–all of three, one-syllable words–is simple enough, but its contents, comprising a panorama of Russian society and history over a span of a decade, are far from it. Then there’s its size–the edition I read bulges at over 1,300 pages. Its epic scope and intimidating size has made Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1867) both famous and infamous in the minds of modern readers. The attention of span of people today is geared toward skills like skimming, scrolling, ad glossing over that are entirely incompatible with Tolstoy’s work. So, one might wonder, why bother? Why not leave this massive book to literary enthusiasts and those obsessed with Russia?

Yet the answer to this actually lies in War and Peace‘s alien, hulking nature. It is unlike almost any other book out there, in terms of genre, ambition, and scale (the edition I read lists almost forty “principal” and over fifty “historical” characters). This is not a work intended to be enjoyed just for the story, but to change a reader’s view of humanity.

War and Peace‘s title reveals a lot about what goes down in this work. About half of the book devotes itself to a thorough, engrossing exploration of the Napoleonic Wars, especially Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, through the eyes of Russian privates, captains, generals, and even the occasional serf. The “peace,” or societal, part of the book features Tolstoy crafting out comedy, melodrama, scandals, and romances among the five main families, all aristocratic, comprising his book. Out of the ninety-plus names to keep track of, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Countess Natasha Rostova, and Pierre Bezukhov stand out as the closest-identifiable protagonists. This trio grounds War and Peace‘s lofty scope and ideas into reality, making the reader care about both epic battles and societal intrigue.

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Of course, adoring War and Peace isn’t mandatory for the brave readers who attempt to span its pages. Having historical figures pop up as fictionalized characters (Napoleon Bonaparte appears as a callous, vain egomaniac with a penchant for rubbing his nose) struck me as odd if innovative, and the last hundred or so pages are absent of characters–instead, Tolstoy chooses to go on a philosophic diatribe about fate vs. free will . . . yikes.

Nevertheless, dusting off War and Peace and at least attempting the attention span marathon it demands can be hugely rewarding for a reader today. It’s the ultimate act of defiance against forgetting the past, getting too worked up about the present, losing oneself to distractions both meaningless and mindless (and, of course, ignorance about Russia). Tolstoy’s masterwork shatters the notion of what a “book” is, or for that matter “story” or “literature.” Tolstoy himself denied that War and Peace is a novel, or, for that matter, a history or epic. It paints spectacular scenes on a canvas so large that the beginning and end of War and Peace are more like brackets encapsulating a vivid world bursting at the seams. 

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Other great works by Tolstoy include Anna Karenina (1877) and Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). I highly recommend the 2016 BBC miniseries of War and Peace as well.