Happy Birthday Mr. Tolstoy

Today, September 9th, marks the birth of Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy who was born back in 1828, wrote, among many other classics, the voluminous doorstop, “War and Peace”. This novel, whose English translation word count runs slightly over half a million words is so lengthy, that it has come to symbolize an event that takes a long time to complete, as in:

“What’aya doin’ in there pal, reading War and Peace?”

To me, War and Peace symbolizes the Everest of reading challenges. Personally, I have attempted, and failed, to make my way to the summit, on not one, not two, but upon three separate attempts.

Attempt number one was when I was but yet in High School – my eyes were in great shape, and my reading moxie was at its highest. I had just finished reading Dickens’ Bleak House and I thought that I could tackle anything. Unfortunately, the maze of Russian names soon brought me to my adolescent knees.

Attempt number two was made in the summer of 1991. Having recently picked up a fine hardbound copy of this book at a yard sale for 50 cents, I’d just placed it on my bookshelf, with a mental note to pick it up and start reading it someday, when when my job abruptly ended and I had – well, lots of time.

Those were the days before computers and cell phones. After mailing out a stack of resumes to every company I could think of, the only thing to do was to sit back and wait for the phone to ring, and since all phones were tethered to the wall back then, I found myself virtually housebound throughout the business day, with little to do except, read War and Peace. And read I did, for the better part of a week, but in the end, I found other pursuits to fill my day, and my hardbound copy still sits on my bookshelf with a receipt from the Hackettstown, New Jersey Shoprite, dated July 17, 1991, serving as a bookmark. The receipt is tucked firmly into page 241 – a tiny pencil mark noting the exact spot where I left off.  I have not revisited this volume since.

My third and final attempt on the summit came in the winter of 1996 (or thereabouts, but it was winter). I was spending a lot of time on New Jersey Transit trains, riding back and forth from my home in New Jersey to my job in Manhattan. I had lots of time to read. This time though, I picked up a paperback edition of War and Peace, as it was considerably less bulky than the Bible sized copy on my home bookshelf. This time I approached War and Peace with fervor. I planned it carefully. I decided that 20 pages per day would be a reasonable goal. That would be 10 pages on the train riding into the city in the morning, and 10 riding home that evening. That shouldn’t be too bad, I decided. At that rate, I would finish it in about 72 days! I made sure that I always carried a golf pencil in my pocket so that I could jot margin notes. I was prepared.

This time I went deeper into War and Peace than I had ever gone before, but around page 300 or so, I could tell that I was losing my enthusiasm. Somewhere around page 400, or about 1000 pages short of completion, I misplaced my marked up paperback copy of War and Peace, leaving it for some other passenger on the NJT Gladstone line to pick up and enjoy. So if this is where you came across your copy of War and Peace, I hope that my margin notes helped. I also hope that you made it to the summit. I do not plan to attempt another ascent.

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4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Mr. Tolstoy

  1. I remember that same sense of literary accomplishment upon completing Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.
    It would be fascinating if the person who found your copy of War and Peace were to stumble onto this post . . . or to write one of his/her own saying they’d only managed to read the entire book thanks to the helpful margin notes the previous reader had left behind.

    • Hopefully, my margin notes would be helpful. Sometimes I still think of trying to pick up that book and making my way through it. But I think at my age the time commitment would be too large. I have so many other books on my “to read” list.

  2. Although I have never been so brave as to attempt reading War and Peace I know that it is a bear of a read and it may have been no accident that you left the book on the train that day, May have been the power of the unconscious. In any event, you should be praised for taking on the book to the extent that you did.

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