Reading Slowly: War and Peace

More and more I’ve come to love reading slowly, a practice that emerged from convictions not entirely separate from my philosophy of urban driving.

War and Peace may be my coup de grâce of slow reading.

Need I say how all the world is convinced that if one is to read, reading fast is preferable? Such a conclusion follows naturally from (1) the vast body of written materials that remain to be read and (2) the increasingly few and far between moments in which reading is permitted. Also, (3) many more stultifying forms of pleasure nip at the pantlegs of our attention.

Sometime early in 2019 I checked out Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy from the Free Library of Philadelphia, specifically, the august Vine Street branch located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway (designed with Paris in mind). As I write these words, only nine days have passed in the month of August 2020, which means I’ve been reading this book for well more than a year, and yet I’m only 750 pages into the book (749, to be honest, as of last night around 11:30 p.m.).

Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, good for reading slowly
The cover of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Occasionally I feel some chagrin for not having finished this sooner (I think I read The Kindly Ones in less than a month’s time). I am capable of reading faster. But such chagrin is merely an expression of a cultural impulse to be tolerated and ignored like an ignorant stepchild (ein kleiner Witz, bitte).

The three reasons, why we are enjoined to read fast, enumerated above are all true. The conclusion that we should read quickly (and widely) does not, however, follow from them.

Why reading slowly

Reading is an experience of pleasure (and the pain that has become a pleasure) requiring the careful, thoughtful contemplation of the concatenation of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs formed into phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs—all of which exploit language’s ability to conjure the phantasms of the imagination and its raw materials in sense experience as much as to bring ideas before the light of the intellect.

That experience may only be appreciated—just as the flâneur appreciates the city he vacantly peruses—namely, slowly and with patient surveillance of all that stands before the mind’s eye.

Reading quickly imagines a destination that does not exist, a Shangri-la where someone can rest self-assured in his having read so many things and being all the more edified for it.

But reading a destination is not.

A counter-argument

One might argue that if we have only so much time to read so many good things—ask me, I dare you (really, ask me!), how many books are on my list of things to read—we should read quickly and widely to get through as many of those as we can.

Lev Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and advocate of reading slowly
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, author of War and Peace

What’s more, reading quickly and widely can facilitate the decision that a tome needs to be read again and at that time we can read more slowly through such a well-appreciated text.

Indeed, were I of such a disposition, I might well be that kind of reader. But I’ve always been a somewhat slower reader—pretty much slower at everything, in point of fact—and so adopting such a strategy would probably not even be feasible.

One presupposition of reading slowly

To read for pleasure does not mean that all such pleasures are consumed indifferently.

Just as Aristotle recommends in the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, the ultimate form of pleasure is intellectual pleasure, as it admits of no excess. Reading is probably the most profound contemporary form of intellectual pleasure.

Back to War and Peace (ad infinitum)

The time that I’ve spent reading War and Peace I’ll never have back again, but I do not think that I’ll ever regret it. I do, however, regret the several times I’ve watched Ninja Assassin or most Bruce Willis films. I probably regret all of the Stephen King books that I read.

One virtue of reading this book slowly is that I’ve seen the characters transform over time. For example, Bezukhov has become his strange person. The episode when he becomes a Mason and drinks deeply those waters only to realize the organization is less a religion than a social club—I was thrilled to think about these doctrines and how Bezukhov received them even as he doubted their meaning.

Still from War and Peace. If only Kutuzov had been ad advocate for reading slowly!
Still from a film versions of War and Peace. Probably the maligned Kutuzov

The late life and death of Prince Nikolai Andreich Bolkonsky has been dramatized over a realistic time frame. His difficult relationship with Marya and then stroke was vivid, affecting. And I wonder if it could have been without being seen over this long period of time.

Bolkonsky himself (the son) suffered grievous wounds both physical and emotional and has endured them. He’s known a profound, irrational love. Those episodes have taken place just as life unfolds.

The confusing life of the Russian aristocracy in its French identity and then Russian self-assertion has passed before my eyes in complexity and contradiction.

And more reading

Over this period of reading I’ve read many other things. I’d purchased Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, which is an abridged translation of Phillipe Paul de Ségur‘s Histoire de Napoléon et de la grande armée pendant l’année 1812, perhaps even a year before picking up War and Peace. That was a great (quick) read.

In addition, I’ve read several chapters of David A. Bell’s The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It, which I picked up when I began reading War and Peace and wanted to know more about the historical background. Bell has a long chapter on Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque and its own origin story—yet another book that I’ve wanted to read.

tl;dr (you missed the damned point, both literally and figuratively)

Read slow, for the love of Christ. At least War and Peace. Maybe not Insomnia.


FOOTNOTES

I do wonder if a flâneur can be a woman. Can a woman enjoy the haphazard movement through the urban landscape without being harassed by this passer-by or another?


Not Die Hard (1988), to be sure, but Live Free or Die Hard (2007), the reboot, probably. I’ve grown to like Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), which is really just Die Hard 3. Probably this is because of the risible and somewhat woke partnership of Willis’ and Samuel Jackson’s character. Live Free or Die Hard is awesome because of all of the parkour and the killing-a-helicopter-with-a-police-car and Justin Long’s as well as Timothy Olyphant’s characters (the latter I’ve loved ever since watching Deadwood [2004-06], which I declare is one of the two best television shows ever produced, the other being The Wire [2002-08]).