War (and Peace). What is it good for?

A long, long time ago, after eating a Galaxy far, far away, I, against the advice of my loved ones, began a quest which would last the whole summer long. It has been a lengthy and troublesome journey but today I’ll throw that ring in to the fire and head my way home. I started ‘War and Peace’ on the first day of the summer holidays and finish it today, just as I’m about to return to school this week. I stopped very briefly, to read ‘To Kill a Watchman’  – don’t get me started – but this has been my one book for the summer. I could have read probably ten others during that time. But didn’t. What the hell was I thinking?

I wrote at the time that I wanted to convince myself that I could still cope with long periods of reading for pleasure; I wanted to convince myself that I could still read a big, meaty Russian novel; I wanted to convince myself that I was a serious reader. And do you know what? I’m not sure what I’ve learned. I tried to target fifty pages a day and mostly managed that. But it was a bit like Eddie Izzard running twenty six marathons one day after another: the relief in getting to page fifty late at night, replaced with that morning feeling of having to do it all again and that’s not a healthy approach to reading.

The distractions proved difficult and not just social media. Life takes over during the holidays. Day trips, household chores, life. My biggest concern was my inability to sit for any length of time , lost in the book. I just couldn’t manage it very often.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a wonderful novel, gloriously written. The prose is electric at times, the war scenes dramatic and breath-taking. The dialogue is as good as any I’ve read and a masterclass for anyone with aspirations to write creatively. But it’s long, long, long. I know that’s incredibly shallow of me but, hey, welcome to my world. I don’t have the time any more.

What was more striking though, was the realisation that in order to access a book like ‘War and Peace’ there are so many factors I needed to take into account. What if I had little or no knowledge of who Napoleon might be? What if my historical knowledge was so lacking that the wars after which he is named were a complete mystery? The intellectual hooks necessary to access more challenging literature is an important reminder as I return to school and a new set of classes.

So, as I choose another set of texts to teach to children this year, surely it is incumbent on us as English teachers to opt for class texts which have substance. That to study books with little or no cultural merit – and I emphasise the point that these are not books to be read for pleasure but to study – then we not only miss a valuable opportunity for deep learning, we lower the expectations for children at a time when they need to be raised.  There are very good reasons why ‘War and Peace’ is a classic. Despite my inability to enjoy the experience as much as I should have, at least I’ve read it now.

War (and Peace)? What is a good for? Absolutely something. Something hugely important.