Why you need to read Tolstoy
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.’’