On reading War and Peace

American writer Kevin Hartnett ponders the effects of great art on an ordinary life after 3 solid months with arguably Tolstoy’s signature tome. He says in the same way that it would be hard to meet Scarlett Johansson and not be distracted by her beauty, it is difficult to read War and Peace and not be preoccupied with its reputation as the greatest novel ever written.

Hartnett thought of Tolstoy, for example, when reading about climate change (suggesting the Russian author probably would have been a skeptic) and when assessing President Obama’s leadership on health care (based on the author’s favourable depiction of General Kutuzov, who abandoned Moscow to the French in order to preserve the Russian army, Hartnett thinks Tolstoy would have endorsed Obama’s decision to forego the public option).

He also applied War and Peace to smaller aspects of his life, too.  A passage about the forced idleness of regimental life clarified vague thoughts he’d had about how having a baby makes it easier to nap guilt-free. And at one point he stopped short after reading a passage on Prince Andrei’s decision to withdraw from life into the work of his estates that seemed, minus the part about the estates, like a mimeograph of his own mind.

One somewhat disquieting effect of reading War and Peace is that the more your own thoughts show up in its pages, the less original your life begins to feel.

Hartnett says he reads the big canon titles for the pure aesthetic moment that comes from seeing life perfectly distilled into words.  In this respect, he considers that there is not a more able book than War and Peace, mainly because Tolstoy’s singular genius is to be able to take the torrent of conscious experience and master it.

Read the full essay by Kevin Hartnett in The Millions literary blog …