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Why you need to read Tol­stoy

The Australian - The Deal - - News -

The screen­ing of the BBC’s six-part adap­ta­tion of War and Peace in Jan­uary pro­duced one of those hu­man dis­con­nects Leo Tol­stoy, the Rus­sian aris­to­crat who wrote the novel, might have liked. A new edi­tion of his 147-year-old book bounced on to the Bri­tish best­seller list. At 1500 pages it’s a long read, so per­haps the buy­ers were not re­flected in a YouGov poll that came out at the same time: 4 per cent of Brits said they had read War and Peace, while an­other 14 per cent reck­oned they wanted to. As Tol­stoy ob­served, his­tory is what hap­pens to us; des­tiny is what we do with it.

That 82 per cent of the YouGov re­spon­dents hadn’t read the book and didn’t plan to is a statis­tic that may have caught the eye of Bri­tish his­to­rian and au­thor Niall Fer­gu­son, who thinks a so­cial me­dia-caused re­luc­tance to im­merse our­selves in long, se­ri­ous, philo­soph­i­cal, emo­tional works of lit­er­a­ture is, well, bring­ing down civil­i­sa­tion.

“I ask my­self, what per­cent­age of time does the av­er­age of­fice worker spend on Face­book, on so­cial net­works?’’ he said dur­ing a re­cent visit to Syd­ney. “If you are on Face­book, Twit­ter and WeChat and What­sApp, con­stantly com­mu­ni­cat­ing with your con­tem­po­raries, which seems to be the norm, you’re not read­ing War and Peace. You re­ally can’t read any­thing long.

“I think there has been a col­lapse of se­ri­ous read­ing among a gen­er­a­tion of my stu­dents who are cut off from the great works of world lit­er­a­ture. How can we pos­si­bly pre­serve our civil­i­sa­tion if the next gen­er­a­tion has read 1 per cent of what we read? How can that work? They are in dan­ger of be­ing cut off from the great truths of the hu­man con­di­tion by their own in­ces­sant chat­ter with one an­other.”

Fer­gu­son did chat a bit about War and Peace on his own Twit­ter ac­count, by the way, but that’s fine be­cause part of the great­ness of Tol­stoy’s book, set dur­ing Napoleon’s failed 1812 in­va­sion of Tsarist Rus­sia, is its un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­ity of in­hab­it­ing hu­man skin. We can be good and bad, right and wrong, Rus­sian or French. We live and learn and change. There’s a won­der­ful mo­ment when main char­ac­ter Niko­lai Ros­tov, who thought war would be thrilling, re­alises he can­not kill a French sol­dier be­cause in­stead of an en­emy he sees an or­di­nary man who has a “sim­ple, home­like face”.

War and Peace is about real life, seen via the minds and ac­tions of char­ac­ters who look into them­selves, who find deeper mean­ing as they face the chal­lenges of war and so­cial up­heaval, who ex­pe­ri­ence tri­umph and tragedy, and love. They suf­fer from self-ob­ses­sion, as we all do, but in Tol­stoy’s hands are ca­pa­ble of sep­a­rat­ing them­selves from solip­sism to see and feel how other peo­ple live.

The writer Si­mon Schama ex­plained this sim­ply and well in a re­cent ar­ti­cle: “There is no book quite like it; no book that en­com­passes al­most the whole of hu­man­ity, and which col­lapses the space be­tween ink and pa­per and flesh and blood so com­pletely that you seem to be liv­ing it rather than read­ing it.’’ It’s a his­tor­i­cal novel rel­e­vant to to­day. It’s about the hu­man cost of his­tory. In­deed, Fer­gu­son, who said read­ing it per­suaded him to be­come a his­to­rian, be­lieves a new ver­sion would be best set in the Mid­dle East.

As The Aus­tralian’s lit­er­ary ed­i­tor, it’s more or less part of my job de­scrip­tion to have read War and Peace. Yet I read it a long time ago, well be­fore this job, along with the other Rus­sian writ­ers I love, par­tic­u­larly Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky. I’ve had lots of other po­si­tions on the news­pa­per, in­clud­ing busi­ness ed­i­tor, and while it would be stretch­ing it to say I’ve re­ferred to the book reg­u­larly for work rea­sons, I do agree with Fer­gu­son that read­ing it is good for ci­vil­ity.

War and Peace is a hymn to life, to hu­man­ity, a re­minder that the world works – and doesn’t work – be­cause of each and all of us. “Tol­stoy’s gift,’’ Clive James wrote re­cently, “is to draw upon what’s al­ready in your head.’’ This is some­thing we all can use, what­ever job we have, from cor­po­rate leader to Can­berra politician. Mal­colm Turn­bull and Bill Shorten are fac­ing our com­mon, col­lec­tive clout right now. Philoso­pher Isa­iah Ber­lin summed it up in his cel­e­brated 1953 es­say The Hedge­hog and the Fox: “The higher the sol­diers or states­men are in the pyra­mid of author­ity, the far­ther they must be from its base, which con­sists of those or­di­nary men and women whose lives are the ac­tual stuff of his­tory; and, con­se­quently, the smaller the ef­fect of the words and acts of such re­mote per­son­ages, de­spite all their the­o­ret­i­cal author­ity, upon that his­tory.”

You can read War and Peace in about 40 hours, a work­ing week. It would be a sound in­vest­ment. “The strong­est of all war­riors,’’ Tol­stoy wrote, “are these two – Time and Pa­tience.’’

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