Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of blog posts by Steven Axelrod, a writer reflecting on Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece, War and Peace, a monumental journey of a novel that he has embarked on completing this winter.
A friend of mine complained to me yesterday that the novel’s passages in French disrupted her reading of the first chapter. “I felt like I was attending Anna Sherer’s soiree,” she told me. “I was on top of everything when I could read the book in English. When it turned to French and I had to check the footnotes every few sentences for a translation, I felt like I was stumbling through the party with a glass eye and an ear trumpet.”
I explained to her that French was the language of the upper class in Russia at the time, and due to her lamentable lack of fluency, she would most likely never have even been invited to the soiree in the first place. To hover out on the fringes as a reader, and pick up what scraps she could, was in fact a privilege.
For some reason that didn’t make her feel any better.
Another common complaint as you venture into Tolstoy’s world, is the swarm of names and surnames and patronymics. Sometimes you think there are six people in the room and there only three; other times you have no idea what room you’re in at all. Is this still Anna Scherer’s soiree? Then who are Sonia and Natasha? Daughters? Whose daughters? These moments of confusion can be discouraging. You page back — after all, the last time you picked up the book was at least a fortnight ago, and no less a personage than Philip Roth has pronounced, “If it takes you more than two weeks to read a book, you haven’t read it.” Yikes: it’s been more than that already and you’re only fifty pages into one of the longest novels ever written. So you shrug and say, “Bite me Phil, you don’t even write books anymore.”
And you wade back in, refusing to be defeated, you page back and realize that the scene has shifted to the Rostov household — Nathasha and Sonia are the Rostov sisters. But this can take a while, and involves much close re-reading of big chunks of dense text.
CFES can take hold: Classic Fiction Exhaustion Syndrome. And that’s without all that French. Ask your doctor if Litcritamine is right for you (Possible side effects may include migraine headache, double vision and suicidal thoughts or actions).
Actually, there is a non-pharmaceutical solution to this problem. Some people say the best over-the-counter Tolstoy reading-aid is a glass of vodka.
But I have a better one in mind: the Kindle.
Many people are still wary of e-reader technology and the Kindle is a paradoxical little toy.
Much of what’s good about it is also bad, and vice versa. On the one hand, it strips all ancillary aesthetic pleasure from the act of reading: no interesting fonts, no creamy paper, no leather bindings, no illustrations, no musty old summer house smell. You get nothing but text, sharp and clear but unadorned, exactly filling the same white rectangle in exactly the same way, page after page, book after book, whether you’re reading Tolstoy, Lee Child, or Robert Caro’s LBJ biography. But that’s also kind of cool. It gives all those books, all those writers, a level playing field. There’s nothing to distract you from the words themselves, which are after all, the whole point. You don’t even have to turn the pages — just, touch the edge of the screen, and one page melts into the next.
The Kindle is an isolating experience — kind of like the iPod. No one knows what you’re reading, no one is going to note the dust jacket and start a conversation. For the moment the Kindle itself used to spark some interest, but those days are long gone, fading into the digital pre-history of five years ago.
But there’s a plus side to this, too. You can read War and Peace without making a statement about yourself: “Look at me! Reading the classics!” And if you have a weakness for cheesy romance novels or slow-witted techno-thrillers, no one has to know that either.
Isolation also means privacy.
So that’s all good. But if you do use a Kindle for reading Tolstoy, you’ve found the perfect medium. It’s like watching football on television, with the yellow first down line and the replays, the commentary and the close-ups. Yeah you could go out to Soldier Field in a December blizzard and watch the Bears game through binoculars, defying crowds, the hard seats, and frostbite. In fact, you should. Or be good to yourself — maybe an early season game, with good expensive seats on the 50-yard line, in some place temperate like San Diego or Miami. But for the most part TV is better. The game as it’s played now was designed for television.
And the e-book is designed for Tolstoy.
Touch the screen, and the Kindle translates the French for you; lose track of a character and the Kindle finds him (or her), and gives you every instance when they’ve appeared. A mysterious word? Kindle defines it for you.
And best of all, the slim gray wafer never betrays the daunting bulk of the epic in your hands. You can click happily through the story without marking your location in the vastness or worrying about your progress. And there’s a faint potent echo of childhood there, as well. Reading on a Kindle (with no bedside light to disturb your partner) feels like reading under the covers with a flashlight, stealing one more chapter before your eyes have closed and you’re reading in your sleep, all the characters turned into dancing whales in top hats.
Any book can benefit by that frisson of forbidden fun, War and Peace just as much as Goldfinger or Anne of Green Gables, and maybe more.
Next week: Pierre and Andrei: best buddy movie ever.