Since the summer 2005, when I read the previous three volumes of Caro's majestic Years of Lyndon Johnson series, I have periodically checked the interSince the summer 2005, when I read the previous three volumes of Caro's majestic Years of Lyndon Johnson series, I have periodically checked the internet for updates on the final volume's release. When I saw that it was available for pre-order on Amazon I loudly whooped. I kinda hope that bookstores do a midnight release so I can dress up like Sam Rayburn and stay up reading all night. I may be crazy, but doesn't that cover look pretty sexy? Yes, my name is A.J., and I'm am fully aware that I'm a dork....more
150 years ago this month, Secessionist forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. After 34 hours hours of bombardment, Major Robert Ander150 years ago this month, Secessionist forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. After 34 hours hours of bombardment, Major Robert Anderson agreed to surrender the fort. The day's fighting resulted in no casualties on either side, except a donkey caught in the cross fire. Within a few years, maybe months, of the firing on Fort Sumter, the proceeding conflict has taken on an air of inevitability. "A house divided can not stand," as Lincoln said; the fundamental issue at stake would eventually have to be settled by violence. I aree that the war became inevitable at a certain point, whether it was with the election of a Republican president, the disintegration of the Whig Party in 1854, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the compromises made at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, or as far back as the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619. By December 1860, when South Carolina seceded, Southern secession had been a Damocles' sword hanging over the young republic for over 40 years.
Yet, at the same time, most Americans weren't expecting an imminent conflict in April 1860. There may have been problems, but these things had a history of working themselves out. Lost in many accounts of the origins of the Civil War is how quickly things escalated. The onset of the Civil War in 1861 may seem inevitable on a macro level, but not necessarily on a micro level. The propulsive momentum of events left most Americans, from Lincoln and Davis to ordinary citizens, struggling to accomodate with new realities.
Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening is the story of the country's realization that this is happening. The book is a portrait of how Americans came to terms with and preparing themselves for the coming conflict.
Before I go further, allow me to quickly justify this book's existence. You would be justified see this book was published this year and ask yourself if we really need another general chronology of the Civil War. How much more is out there that hasn't been amply covered many times before? I'll answer by saying that this is not a traditional or 'been-there' Civil War book. 1861 is a somewhat misleading title, Goodheart does not aim to write a broad historical survey of a particular year. The book's chapters are each an in-depth portrait of how Americans reacted to the onset of the war on the micro-level. In fact, the subtitle, The Civil War Awakeninggives a far-better sense of what the book is. This format allows Goodheart to give a unique and refreshing perspective on familiar events.
The book opens conventionally in Charleston Harbor, but somewhat ironically in the last days of 1860. Although the importance of the actual 'battle' at Fort Sumter has been exaggerated, the effect of these events were extremely influential. Non-Civil War buffs may not be aware that Charleston Harbor had been at the center of national attention for months before the first shot was fired. In fact the first aggressive action of the Civil War occurred as early as December, when Anderson ordered the quiet evacuation of the impossible to defend Fort Moultrie and the consolidation of his garrison at the recently (kinda) completed Fort Sumter. This action did not come lightly. Anderson, a Kentucky native and Southern sympathizer, justified this by an artful interpretation of an order. Anderson himself probably knew his interpretation was not only erroneous, but directly contrary to the intention of his superior, the Secretary of War John Floyd, a Virginian who was not so discreetly using his position to secure arms for the soon-to-be Confederate states. Anderson's dilemma is an appropriate one to open the book with. 1861 was a year of conflicted or ambiguous loyalties and the difficult choices that ensued.
Following this introduction, Goodheart leaves Charleston for several chapters. If the national mood wasn't hell-bent on war in the early months of 1861, it wasn't exactly the epitome of brotherhood. By electing Abraham Lincoln president in November, forty percent of the country had to know they were casting votes for a man whom the vast majority of Southerners would find utterly unacceptable. Goodheart relates how there was a good deal of belligerence behind the 1860 election and the effect of a younger generation on the American politic. Republican voters went beyond exercising their democratic rights, and in many ways courted conflict with the slaveholding states. Meanwhile, Washington still a very Southern town where the consensus was on some sort of compromise, and Goodheart provides an intriguing portrait of the final, mostly pathetic, months of the Buchanan administration.
Everything changed after Sumter. The material is familiar, but Goodheart does an admirable job retelling how Lincoln exploited an impossible situation in a way that let the new president craft the narrative of the conflict. The surrender of Fort Sumter electrified and unified much of the remaining country. For the Confederacy, the handling of the Sumter crisis resulted in a mostly meaningless victory, but was certainly a tremendous strategic misstep. The argument could be made that the Confederacy would have won the war if they had let Sumter be. Goodheart then relates how loyalty to the Union was ensured in California and Missouri; albeit two different kinds of loyalty achieved in two different manners. Also, Goodheart portrays how the public began to come to initial terms with the sacrifices the war would demand, with the account of the life and death of Elmer Ellsworth.
Probably the high point of the book is the chapter devoted to General Benjamin Butler's decision to treat escaped slaves as contraband. Goodheart makes the case that Butler's decision, made at the location where the first African slaves arrived over two hundred years earlier, was the first real harbinger of the extinction of slavery in America. An abridged version of this chapter appeared in The New York Times a few weeks back, and is worth seeking out if you're not interested in the entire book. Goodheart expertly shows how Butler's decision not only changed the situation in Virginia, but irretrievably changed the national consensus. Finally, the book closes with Lincoln crafting his message to the special session of Congress which opened on July 4, the first time the body met since April. No matter how much some people focus on the societal aspect of the history, certain individual presences play a irreplaceable part. The fact remains that Lincoln knew that the direct cause of the Civil War was his election. Contrary to his address at Gettysburg two years later, Lincoln spent months on this message to Congress. Because he did the hard work two years earlier, Lincoln was able to repeat himself in a much shorter and much more poetic manner. Lincoln was able to distill his solution of the 'why are we fighting' question in the general population. It wasn't so much that he was able to move the population to him, as he was able to understand the irrepressible moment of events. Lincoln's understanding of the meaning behind the impersonal force of history was the rock on which eventual victory was built. Because of this, Lincoln's July 4th message to Congress is the perfect place for Goodheart's book to end.
1861 isn't concerned with generals, battles, etc. In fact, the last chapter takes place in July, a month before the first major conflict of the War. Actually, the books isn't really concerned with the Confederate side of the issue. That's not an issue because what the book is concerned about is the shaping of the Union resolve, and it would be this resolve that would be the main dynamic force behind the war. For all the talk of revolution, the Confederate Rebellion was a retrograde and traditional. The dynamism that influenced the country at large almost totally emerged from the Union side. Goodheart's book gives the reader some understanding of the initial sparks that fueled this dynamism that we are still coming to terms with 150 years later.
This is a standalone version of the essay that Updike wrote on Ted Williams last game in Fenway Park that appeared in the New Yorker in October 1960.This is a standalone version of the essay that Updike wrote on Ted Williams last game in Fenway Park that appeared in the New Yorker in October 1960. I read this in the New Yorker Baseball Digital Anthology a couple years back. This essay might be the Sgt. Peppers of sportswriting. It was the announcement that a previously trivialized form of popular culture (sportswriting/rock music) had to be taken seriously as a medium for works which could be seen as pieces of art. I'm not dismissing sports journalism written before that, some of which is quite fine. But even the greatest sportswriters, while they may not have written down to the genre, at least let the expected forms of the genre dictate their writing. Here, Updike trims the fat. There's none of that Grantland Rice style of inserting artificial poignancy through flowery rhetoric and overbearing metaphor. This was just a great writer writing about baseball, as that was all the embellishment you needed. It's not really surprising that Roger Angell, perhaps the dean of modern sportswriting, has acknowledged this essays influence on his own career.
The essay also has one of my favorite paragraphs in nonfiction prose. Near the end of the article, Updike describes how Williams homers in what is surely his last at bat.
Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of the bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs - hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were some sort of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we humped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hit the dugout, he did not come bac. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement, into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortally is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now.
And then the money line:
Gods do not answer letters.
Great stuff. One of my five favorite essays. Highly recommended.
The first time I read Christopher Hitchens I thought he was completely full of shit. I don't remember the exact specifics, but I have a decent enoughThe first time I read Christopher Hitchens I thought he was completely full of shit. I don't remember the exact specifics, but I have a decent enough recall of the circumstances. My metaphorical cherry was popped by his "Fighting Words" column on Slate, and I can all but guarantee that that the topic was Iraq. This must have been at some point in the months immediately following the invasion, after the initial toppling-of-statues glow of liberation was beginning to wain. Since I had never read Hitchens before, I didn't know his backstory,* in fact, I assumed that he was a Republican ideologue. Actually, since the tone of his Iraq articles displayed such a venom to the anti-war left, which I considered myself a member of, a rather ardent Republican ideologue.
Of course, as I continued to read his weekly article, I would eventually learn the whole story**. But let me stop there to point out what was (and is) so remarkable about Hitchens writing. I loathed every sentiment he expressed in my initial encounter, but I felt compelled to come back each Monday for my weekly appointment. When he wrote about Iraq, I felt like I was doing spar work with a great boxer. My thoughts and opinions became more precise and well-worked, and eventually, much more nuanced. And there was always at least one wicked putdown or a witty aside that never failed to produce a snicker, if not a full belly laugh. I was hooked.
Depending on what I'm doing and what state of mind I'm in, my inner monologue can probably be described as a pale imitation of some varying combination of the writings of Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and Christopher Hitchens. In the past ten years, I've probably read more words written by Hitchens than any other writer. I believe one of the reasons Hitchens attracted so many devotees was his writing at its best simulates the kind of conversations we would like to have more often. He seemed to know more than a little about every topic under the sun, and he would always have an appropriate anecdote or personal remembrance to add to the discussion. The effect, after years of reading, allowed fans to feel as if Hitchens was an old friend. I think that feeling was behind a lot of the reaction to his death last month. It seemed more than just the usual 15 seconds of requiem for a public figure these days. It seemed like there were more than a few people who were genuinely affected. Speaking for myself, the last "celebrity" death that left me in such a state of melancholy was in 2001 when George Harrison died.
I was somewhat reluctant Hitchens' memoirs so soon after his death. Sure, I had bought a copy the day it came out (I had pre-ordered it, then forgot about it) and was planning on reading it in the very near future. But doing so then somewhat reeked of a kind of gross sentimentality that I find a little silly and that Hitchens would have probably loathed. Nevertheless, I took the risk of being made to look like one of those MJ fans who still tear up when the "She's Out of My Life" comes on, and plunged in and I'm glad I did.
I very much enjoyed god Is Not Great, but this book is probably the quintessential work expressing Hitchens' work and beliefs. First, a quick aside. I think some people may be turned off by Hitchens' reputation as the militant atheist who never passed up a chance to ridicule organized religion and went on Hannity and Colmes to say he was glad Jerry Falwell is dead. While this was definitely an important part of Hitchens work, it was far from his only trick. Hitch-22 truly exhibits that Hitchens was a multi-tool writer. My personal favorite Hitchens writings are when he writes about authors and literature.
I don't have a lot to say about the book itself. It starts as a fairly conventional memoir, giving an account of his boyhood up to his Oxford years. After that, it becomes more episodic, which each chapter being devoted to a particular topic or range of topics. Of course with Hitchens you never stay focused on one topic for too long. The man could pull off an aside written in another aside written in a book recommendation*** written in an amusing anecdote featuring Martin Amis. Hitchens seems to have read everything, travelled everywhere, pissed all the wrong (or right) people off, and been friends with exclusively fascinating people. Hitch-22 is, without a doubt, the best tribute to his life, and maybe more importantly, the body of work he leaves behind.
*Hitchens is one of those writers where knowing a little bit of context greatly enhances the reading experience. It would almost be worthwhile preambling each essay with a short italicized blurb, something like "Previously in Hitchen..." Of course this context is absolutely nonessential to enjoying the original material, but one of the great things about this memoir is that it makes me look forward to revisiting past favorite articles with somewhat fresh eyes.
**His chapter here on his late rightward turn is one of the highlights of the book, as well as one of the more thoughtful pieces on the decision to invade Iraq I have encountered.
*** You might want to keep a tap opened to Amazon while reading this. My non-fiction wish list grew by a few pages over the last week. ...more
I'm not sure if you can cause what happens in "Foxy Lady" a pause. I mention this only because I've thought about this before, and have concluded thatI'm not sure if you can cause what happens in "Foxy Lady" a pause. I mention this only because I've thought about this before, and have concluded that the best pause in rock music occurs in another Hendrix song, "Bold As Love." At 2:23 in "Foxy Lady", you hear a faint but rising high guitar note that lasts from the end of Hendrix saying "Foxy Lady" throughout the supposed pause. Anyways, I love Egan's description of the power of pause:
The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn't really over, so you're relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and that time the end is for real.
The song that may be the antithesis of pause songs in another Hendrix song, "Little Wing." I've always thought that song was is truly infinite, that it could just go on and on and on, but we're given just a preview of it. I once read someone compare listening to "Little Wing" it to being visited by a long deceased relative in a dream, which is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking, because the visit is illusory and only temporarily. My favorite album of all time is the Beatles' Abby Road, but I'm not sure if it's for purely aesthetic reasons. Abbey Road is the most self-consciously transitory album in pop music. Listening to that album is an emotional experience because it signifies something I love ending.
Anyways, this is a fantastic, life-affirming book. I liked it so much that I was able to get over the fact that there were no references to the Elvis Costello song "Goon Squad," which I had been anticipating since I heard of the book. Things end, people change, dreams die. That doesn't prevent us from embracing the moment. It doesn't matter whether it's permanently encasing in your memory a specific moment spent with your friends or the quick "whoo" at the end of the second verse of Marvin Gaye's "What's Happening Brother." Just so long as nobody makes a lampshade out of me.*
The 20th century wasn't very kind to The History of England's reputation as a work of history. I don't know the material well enough to speak to theseThe 20th century wasn't very kind to The History of England's reputation as a work of history. I don't know the material well enough to speak to these criticisms, but I suppose there is a lot of substance behind them. Certainly Macaulay shows his biases and prejudices from time to time, probably enough to cause the modern reader to question the reliability of his narrative. But at the same time, who cares. Because whatever more modern and evenhanded historians may have over him, very few of them can come close to writing with the verve and style that drips off every page Macaulay wrote.
Whatever the title might suggest, the first volume of The History of England, from the Accession of James II doesn't actually reach the accession of James II until well past the halfway mark of the volume. The first three chapters serve as a long introduction. The first chapter provides a semi-brief overview of the history of England from the time of the Conqueror up to the Restoration, which is a thrilling feat of literary prose. The second chapter gives a semi-detailed account of the 25 year reign of Charles II. The third chapter gives an overview of the contemporary economic, social, and cultural climate in England. While these chapters are too long to be considered a brief overview, they could frustrate readers not overly familiar with the details of the period. For example, Macaulay generally refrains from referencing dates, so the reader is often unsure not only what the month or year is, but what decade the events took place in. Also, while Macaulay does an impressive job of introducing and familiarizing the reader with the important figures of Charles reign, they tend to get lost in the shuffle. The practice of referring to individuals soley by their last name, or their tiles (or their last names, then once granted their titles) once they are introduced doesn't help overwhelmed readers. I'm not sure what more Macaulay could have done to prevent this, except to spend even more time time on an era that is supposedly outside of his proposed purview, so it's hard to say that these shortcomings are a fault. Nonetheless it's something for the reader to be aware of.
It's not until the fourth chapter that Macaulay reaches the beginnings of his actual narrative. These two chapters cover the early months of James II's reign and the disastrous and futile rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, the popular illegitimate son of Charles II, and James' vindictive and misguided policy that followed. Appropriately he slows things way down. The first chapter covers 600 years of history. The second chapter covers 25 years. By contrast the fourth chapter begins with the death of Charles II in February 1685 and the fifth chapter ends with the Bloody Assizes in August of the same year. Here, the reader begins to get a much better feel of the important figures of the time and how one event flowed to another.
Of course three years after the complete failure of Monmouth's cause, James II would be driven from his throne without hardly any bloodshed. The Whigs, or the Country Party, who were at an all-time low after the Exclusion Crisis and and James' succession, would very quickly repair their reputation, overthrow the king, and dominate English politics for the next several generations. The Tories and Churchmen, who had held unquestioned obedience to the sovereign as one of the central tenants of the state-church since Restoration, would very quickly condone, if outright collude in, the overthrow of the rightful monarch. We're introduced to several figures who would play prominent roles in this reversal, and the events that followed. Macaulay introduces us to figures like Churchill, Danby, William of Orange, and Jeffreys.
The History of England used to be one of those books that no self-respecting private library went without. It was one of those books that became a status statement, displayed not because you had read it but because you liked the impression it created that you had read it. It's reputation has taken a hit even among aficionados because the history isn't unimpeachable. That's a shame, because it appears that the storytelling is....more
I've had several unsatisfying false starts on reviews of this one since I finished it, but I think it deserves some cursory recommendation, so here itI've had several unsatisfying false starts on reviews of this one since I finished it, but I think it deserves some cursory recommendation, so here it goes. Matterhorn is one of the most emotionally affecting novels I've ever read, and by far the best war narrative I've ever read. The novel isn't a completely unique experience. Several aspects of the Vietnam narrative framework, jungle miseries, racial tension, malignant aloofness by superiors, etc. are present here. You have to resist the urge to cast Charlie Sheen as the primary protagonist, a young, naive, Ivy League graduate. But Marlantes, a Vietnam veteran who spent over 30 years on this novel, is able to infuse the novel with a unique sense of genuineness.
Marlantes does an unbelievable job of putting you in the boots of a bush marine. Reading the novel, which is always engaging, you are constantly uncomfortable and on the edge. But the reader finds a sense of respite in the inter-squad relationship and you grow attached to even minor characters. So when these characters are forced to undergo hardships and eventually to sent to their deaths to advance the ambitions of others, it's an emotional experience. This book had me so flustered at bureaucratic incompetence I had to put it down. It also, and for me this is unusual, made me cry. The Vietnam War is rightfully remembered as great tragedy and Matterhorn is the a sincere and moving artistic artifact of that tragedy. It's a gut-wrenching, emotionally exhausting, uncomfortable read that I couldn't recommend more.
One of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known asOne of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known as a villain of history. Yet I think all of us fall into the trap of thinking of the past in moralistic terms sometimes. This is a function of generations of storytelling and cultural indoctrination. There are facts that we don't ever necessarily learn, or at least can remember learning, that we don't pause to consider.
My favorite thing about Wolf Hall is how it turns previous conception of a much discussed period of history on its head, while maintaining complete plausibility. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but I always thought of Thomas More as a great man of learning and advocate of free speech, while Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless, unprincipled yes-man. Mantel effectively exploits facts to make you completely reverse your feelings about the two characters. In truth, More was a religious fundamentalist, the man tortured and executed people who strayed from the Church's dogmatic beliefs, hardly a free speech advocate. Cromwell's rise to power would be inspiring if it occurred today, all the more so that he did it almost 500 years ago. Mantel almost does too good of a job of making Cromwell likable, but you are completely ready to buy it. I didn't realize this until I watched the film A Man For All Seasons and found myself becoming upset with its portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. I think this is Mantel's greatest accomplishment, she reverses 500 years of preconceived notions.
The book isn't a necessarily easy read. Mantel throws you into the world and she doesn't give you a ton of exposition or remind you who characters are and how they relate to each other. I frequently had to consult the character list and the genealogical charts at the beginning of the book for a reminder. One night, I stayed up until 4 reading the wikipedia entry on the War of the Roses to refresh myself on that subject. (I actually highly recommend potential readers doing this. Mantel frequently references the events and it also gives you good context of why the production of a legitimate male heir was deemed such an immediate necessity.)
The title Wolf Hall is taken from the estate of the Seymour family, minor characters in the novel. But the title accentuates what I would consider the theme of the novel, which Cromwell repeats to himself several times over the course. Homono homini lupus, man is wolf to man. Mantel's Cromwell is presented as a precursor to the modern politician. This is a hazardous occupation in a time where political missteps had much graver consequences than potential resignation accompanied by a lobbying gig as a fall back plan. In this way Wolf Hall could be labelled a political thriller. One of the thrills in the novel is how Cromwell manges to, excuse the bad joke, keep his head on his shoulders. Watch Cromwell survive the political crushing of his patron and political mentor. See him hazard the stormy rapids that was the Boleyn family. Marvel as he clashes wits with the great Thomas More.
What makes this even more effective is the novel is very well written. Mantel does a great job inhabiting familiar characters and making them come to life. Unlike other fictional works that have dealt with the same period, none of the characters are cliched or one dimensional. Her Henry VIII is my favorite depiction of the much depicted monarch since Robert Shaw's. Here, he is temperamental and often child-like, but also as intelligent and goodhearted. And as a rule, any confrontation with the Boleyn sisters will likely be very entertaining. As it was for Henry, though in a rather different way.
The plot tends to revolve heavily around such such confrontations. There will be plot movement, but most of the time it sets the scene for another meeting between Thomas and Anne, or Cardinal Wolsey, or Thomas More, or the Earl of Norfolk. Nevertheless, my favorite chapter of the book was one of the first, "An Occult History of England." This chapter is mostly exposition, but it works brilliantly as a kind of "how we got here."Combining politics, history, and legend, it reads like something Rushdie could have written.
I enjoyed Wolf Hall much more than I expected to. Although I know how the story ends for all the characters, the novel kept me entertained until the end. Now that I think about it, the novel really reminds me of Robert Caro's first two LBJ biographies which detailed Johnson's rise to power. While they don't retell the traditional hero's journey, a non-mythical path to power can be more worthwhile and just as entertaining epic....more
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about thisWow....
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about this book, I'm saying something equivalent to "Michael Jordan was a good basketball player" or "Richard Nixon had a decent amount of issues." This book is not only on the short list of best novels ever, it was there a century before my birth. But, hey, this thing is a beast, and it feels like a real accomplishment finishing it, so I'm going safely deposit my thoughts here rather than pestering my friends and family.
First a quick note. I never fully realized the value of a well-done translation before reading this book. So I need to add my endorsement to the cacophony of praise I've seen for Pevear and Volokhonsky. I happened to have a Barnes and Noble Edition that I purchased years ago for comparison purposes. The difference is striking. The public domain translation often appears to be a summary of Tolstoy's writing, while this edition is a translation in the truest sense. It not only translates the text, it translates the writing. Also, the old edition was abridged. Maybe this specific abridgment was particularly chopped up, but it really mangled the thing. With a lot of work that was originally serialized, you can tell that some of the material there is to provide filler for current issue. Here, even the chapters that may not be essential to the narrative or the overall thesis of the novel are essential to the feel of the work. Any abridgment of War and Peace is, nevertheless, going to leave the prospective reader with a tall stack of papers. When it comes down to it, if your going to attempt to tackle this beast, you might as well try to get your arms around this whole thing. You'll be doing yourself a favor. Tolstoy goes on tangents and diversions, but holy shit, he's Leo Fucking Tolstoy, he should have been encouraged write whatever he wants, and there isn't a thing that is not worthwhile. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation also includes the original French (with English translations in footnotes) where Tolstoy used it. While this may appear to be an unnecessary inconvenience, it serves a definite character and storytelling purpose. Again, it's Count Leo Tolstoy, his choices are somewhat credible. Finally, this edition includes extremely helpful citations to endnotes mostly dealing with historical background and also a historical index that is pretty useful.*
I've been aware of War and Peace for a long time. Maybe it's because it serves as the stereotypical overlong book. Maybe I heard a joke about reading War and Peace cover to cover three times while waiting at the DMV, but the novel has been in my conscience for a long time. And ever since I was a kid, trying to read Grisham books because I wanted to be "grownup," I knew a reckoning with this monster was bound to happen sooner or later.
Now that it's over, I think it's a real shame that War and Peace is best known for its length. The novel is a daunting, but not a difficult read. With perhaps the exception of the Second part of the Epilogue, the read is actually easy. The characters are relatable, the prose is easily enjoyable, and the pace of the plot is engaging.** Tolstoy does go on digressions, he often drops the narrative and goes into ruminations on the true nature of history, but he is able to do this in a seamless manner. It all fits together at the end, but it's not particularly jarring as you go along.
For me, the best single word modifier of War and Peace isn't long, it's full. For example, the television show The Wire***, a show that has been described as Tolstoy-ish, is nominally about the efforts of a Baltimore police unit to counter the drug trade in West Baltimore. But if you watched this show you know that this doesn't begin to adequately label what the show is about. The show was about modern American life, race relations, the failings of democracy, the incompetence of bureaucracy, the burdens of family, and more. Put simply, it's about America. Similarly, the narrative of War and Peace concerns the travails of two upper class Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. If the novel was solely limited to this, it would be a fantastic historical novel. But Tolstoy uses this narrative to do so much more. He criticizes established theories of history and ruminates on the true force that causes events to happen. And in the midst of both of these strands, Tolstoy, through his characters and his narrative voice, ruminates on man's search for purpose, both on the individual and collective level.
The narrative thread of the book considered by itself is a supreme achievement. For all the criticisms he gives them, Tolstoy himself is an excellent historian. He's fantastic at capturing the feel of what it how the times felt. The cultural gap between an early 21st century American reader and the early 18th century Russian nobility is needless to say jarring. But Tolstoy never lets things get too uncomfortable. There are very few anecdotes or passages that are overwhelmingly foreign to the modern reader. Like I said above, the narrative is rarely, if ever, difficult or dull.
Isaak Babel spoke the truth, in his reaction to War and Peace. "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." Although little aspects of Tolstoy pop up every now and then, his narrative is impressive for his omnipresence. Much has been made of Tolstoy's realism, but those considerations behind the novel is the most humane piece of art I've encountered. Don't let the historical novel label or the publication date scare you off. Sure, the book was first published in the first year of the Grant administration and was about events that took place generations before publication. Notwithstanding these facts, the book is stunningly relatable. I guarantee you that there will be at least one passage that will leave you convinced that Tolstoy somehow traveled through time to plagiarize your dream journal. All the character, no matter how drastically times and customs have changed, remain at a certain level easily recognizable, familiar, and always viscerally real. Tolstoy, like no other author I've encountered, explores the parameters and comes close to nailing the essence of this state of being that we call being alive. Multiple lifetimes of wisdom and experience seep out of the pages. I know this is getting hokey, but I feel that strongly. Infinite Jest is still my favorite novel, but War and Peace has taken its place as the best novel I've ever read. It's one of those rare books that work as a (extremely long) mantra. As you contemplate and consider the novel you experience a transcendental feeling of deeper awareness. War and Peacereads like it should have been brought down from a mountaintop chiseled on stone plates****. Read it today... or whenever you have a good bit of time on your hands.
* This book is maybe the prime example of why nearly one year into my Kindle experience I'm conflicted. For fiction, I prefer the actual experience of holding a bound group of pages and miss the ability to easily flip back to prior passages. Also, I kinda regret that I won't be able to display on my bookshelf. I feel like the electronic edition should come with some plaque or certificate you can display. Also, sometimes it was a hassle to navigate considering the ubiquitous French translations and endnotes which are numbered separately. On the one hand, it was extremely nice not having to lug around a 1200+ page book and having the option of reading this book on the go. If I had to choose again, I'm not sure which one I'd go with.
** Again, please do yourself a favor and avoid public domain translations. I love raiding Project Gutenberg for free books, but this was totally worth the extra cash.
***AKA the best television show ever, and, perhaps, the best example of narrative storytelling of the best decade. I am an unrepentant whore for The Wire.
**** Except this would require a small army of stone haulers and quarry workers, and may severely reduce the world's supply of rock. ...more