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.

9 thoughts on “War (and Peace). What is it good for?

  1. Some good points here Kenny. Perhaps, by setting yourself targets, you experienced something of what our pupils experience when we try to “encourage” their reading habits. I for one will be interested to know if this has an impact on any of your approaches in the year ahead.

    • Yes, I agree. target setting is something I always encourage. It allows them to see real progress if they are reluctant readers. Numbers add up. Thanks for leaving a comment. kenny

  2. So pleased you finished it before the new year started. I wonder whether you’ll find you keep coming back to it/thinking about it and the enjoyment will distil/marinate/percolate over time….?

  3. Your original post spurred me into trying to read more non-fiction this summer. Did it work? Nope. As you say life got in the way. That and three bits of really good non-fiction that had me rapt. Maybe next summer…

  4. This is so interesting to read! I read War and Peace 10 years ago and didn’t get any of the historical references, and so was bored by the history/war passages but loved the stories of the individuals and their relationships. I’m re-reading it now to be ready for the BBC series which looks so amazing and excited to see what else I missed! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Jo,
      Despite its length, I absolutely loved the book. Like all the Russian masters, it is superbly written and, while challenging, constantly engaging. I look forward to the TV series which I hope won’t be as long. Good luck with the reread and thanks for commenting. I always enjoy your blog,

      • I do find it fascinating that you can read novels at different times in your life and have a quite different response to them.

  5. I am reading Michael Fullans new book Freedom to Change an in one of the first chapters is this story:
    “One June in the press of year-end chores, they received a major request from the state that required compiling reams of data. The staff was under huge duress as they contemplated how to meet the target. Hating to see needless anxiety, this is what Rebel did: She asked two staff members to write the begin- ning and end sections of the report—a few pages—and said she would take care of the rest. Then, between the two sections, she inserted a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (one of the longest novels ever written).
    The staff begged Rebel not to submit the document (“We’ll get in trouble,” “You’ll get fired,” and so on). She reassured them that it was highly unlikely that there would be repercussions and said that if the latter happened, she would buy the team a dinner. They then submitted the report electronically (which caused the system to shut down temporarily—a frequent occur- rence). She never heard back from the state department, and bought her staff dinner anyway!
    As I discussed this incident with her she said,
    The reason I did this was not to annoy the state or to shut down their system. I did it only to try to make a point with some of my staff who worried themselves sick and spent far too many hours to comply with the endless and often repeti- tive requests from multiple siloed departments in the state department.”

    Love your blog! Just found it thanks to LearningSpy..

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