Can ‘War and Peace’ Save My Reading Brain?

I’ve become increasingly concerned by my inability to sit and read for any length of time. While there was a time, not that long ago, when I could sit for hours reading, the onset of middle age and my worrying addiction to Twitter has eroded that brain power and I now struggle to sit for very long without looking for something else to keep my attention. As Nicholas Carr famously wrote in 2008:

‘Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.’ ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’

I’m not getting stupid. I’m just changing. And I don’t like it.

I recall my days living in Greece with not much to do but read. I would set my alarm for six in the morning and leave it by the kettle. In the morning I would switch the alarm off and the kettle on, returning to bed with a coffee and a book and read fifty pages. Without stopping. Every day. Then I’d go back to sleep. I ploughed through books. Now I can barely reach ten pages.

Since reading Thomas Newkirk’s ‘The Art of Slow Reading’ and Alan Jacobs’ ‘The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction’, I’ve thought very carefully about that change in the way my brain operates. Is it merely that I’m getting old or just too exhausted from work to spend as much time reading as I used to? I’ve decided that this summer I’ll test that out: I’ll try to rediscover that joy in sitting quietly, reading for pleasure, for long periods of time.

I suppose ‘War and Peace’ might not be the best choice for the project. It’s fifteen hundred pages long, after all. So why this book? I suppose because this particular one has been a bit of a reading cliche in terms of literature of cerebral heft, perhaps the comedy symbol of intellectual achievement. I’m on the verge of a fairly significant birthday and I haven’t read it and know little about it apart from the fact that Tolstoy originally called it ‘War. What is it Good For?’ (Seinfeld fans will get the joke.) IMG_0339

However, as one hoping to return to being a serious reader, there is no better place to start than the Russian Masters. I can’t believe I once spent time reading and discussing Dostoevsky as I did in my twenties; or ravenously devouring Chekov’s stories. What happens to us? What happened to me?

So, on the first day of my summer holidays, I opened up my second hand copy of ‘War and Peace’ and began to read. Five pages here and there, not even making it to ten, I managed fifty pages yesterday. There appears to be a lot of parties and Twitter apparently has less characters, but it is beautifully written, of course. Today, I managed to read ten pages at a time and hope to get to page one hundred. The serious side to this might be to test myself as a reader once more. I read a lot of teen fiction for school and much of my free time is taken up with educational books. Serious literature often seems like part of my past now.

I’d like to be able to say, by my return to school, that I can sit down and read for an hour again without distractions. Perhaps ‘War and Peace’ will take me there. Perhaps it will lead me in an exciting new direction. But perhaps not.
It might not help that I’m also reading ‘Ulysses’, one page every day. It’s been on my shelf for years and is beginning to annoy me. Wish me luck.

3 thoughts on “Can ‘War and Peace’ Save My Reading Brain?

  1. Provocative post which I feel gets to the heart of the matter – if teachers struggle to read in the way they used to (and I know I do) then it’s not just the ‘teenagers’ who are the issue, it’s the culture shift that we’re undergoing as a whole. There are positives of course; I wouldn’t be sharing my thoughts on this with someone I’ve never met hundreds of miles away if it wasn’t for the internet. But all of us are getting hard-wired for interaction (as well as bite-sized distractions) in a way that makes the sustained imaginative act of reading a great novel (I find that I can still crunch through arguments pretty well) more and more challenging. ‘Ulysses’ has been on my list for quite a few summers – perhaps this time I’ll finally take on the big one!

  2. Good luck Kenny!

    The Russians seem to have disappeared from everyone’s reading list now. In my youth even none literary types like myself would read War & Peace & other Russians.

    As a teen I read several books a week, now it takes me several weeks to read a book. Often I’d be desperate to get back to a book after meals, waking up etc.

    I do concentrate on digital things for hours at a time, but that is usually making rather than consuming, my digital consumption is butterfly style.

  3. This post made me thoughtful, Kenny! Hope you’re sticking with W & P and enjoying it. I read it a long time ago and remember finding it quite hard-going (the multiple names I found hard to get my head round) – in retrospect I think I might not have been mature enough fully to appreciate it. It was that, more than the length, I think, that I found tough.

    Have just reread ‘Middlemarch’ for my Book Group, and found that fascinating. I first read it when an undergraduate in the 1970s (the copy I was reading had my maiden name and a date in March 1977 in the front…) and thought it was only OK. Then I reread it in my 30s when I was Head of English and I was helping a student who’d chosen it as part of her Oxbridge entrance exam preparation. I enjoyed it much more, helped by the fact that she was a very bright girl and it led to some excellent discussion. Although she coped so well with it (at 17!) I wondered whether, in fact, I hadn’t been sufficiently emotionally sophisticated to appreciate its strengths in my early 20s. I think it was Woolf who described it as one of the few books for grown-up people.

    Then rereading it in my 50s I found an even more enjoyable and rewarding experience. As I knew the story I found myself looking much more at the language/style and how Eliot manipulates the emotional response of the reader in such a masterful way. I was also very pleased that, although there’s an article online about ‘How to kill your Book Club: Choose Middlemarch….’ my Book Club, some of whom deliberately joined because they read so little, all got a huge amount from it and we had a brilliant discussion. We’re going for Dr Zhivago this winter!

    Lastly – with apologies that this reply is now approaching War and Peace length – I’m currently on holiday in Sardinia, spending my days in the sun by the pool reading fiction. (Between 11am and 12 noon the sun disappears behind a building and I come inside for a coffee and to catch up with emails/Twitter/blogs). Although I spend a lot of time online, as you probably realise, I still love immersing myself in a really good novel and don’t have any problems sticking with it, as long as it’s good!

    Have a great summer.

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