thoughts on books: war & peace

Yep, I went there. What can one say about War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy? The scope and length of the book was enormous – my version was spread across three books! I have to give this one a 5/5.

The characters were interesting and multidimensional … and numerous … and had two or three names of the following flavors: full formal name, shorter formal name, traditional nickname or individualized nickname. As with Russian novels, making sure you can follow the character names is important! In addition to the epic story about Russia in the early 1800s and their dealings with the French, each of the main characters also undertook a journey – many of which were as gripping as that broad international struggle.

The many themes and questions found in this book are among the most challenging and thoughtful that we face as individuals and that confront humanity. What is true faith? What is destiny or fate? Are our futures predetermined? Do we have free will and to what extent? What is power? How does power relate to (in)dependence and to control? What is effective leadership and how do we know it when we see it? What is love? What should a marriage be? Should we be happy or are other things more important? What role does God playing our lives?

One of the more unusual things about this tome is that occasionally at the beginning of a new “book” or part (my version was organized by books, parts and chapters) is essentially an essay on some philosophical or historical or definitional issue. My guess is that for a number of people this was frustrating because it deviates from the narrative. I however thought this was a very interesting way of moving the thought process forward in parallel to moving the story forward. Although some philosophical differences were presented as discussions among the characters, more often these essays provided a framework for what was to come and sometimes linked it to what had already been discussed. The last part of the book, the second epilogue in my version, was a complete deviation from the narrative. In fact it could be read by itself as an essay on all of those profound questions that the book raised, as well as distinguishing between different types of historians and how they represent history.

I expected a great book when I started reading, but was surprised at the story’s accessibility. I didn’t really expect the story to be as entertaining it was – even the sections on war were really engaging. Rather than talking about where troops were positioned and what armaments were at their disposal, the discussions of war mostly focused on the thought processes of the various characters. Although occasionally the book talked about strategy and how the troops were arranged on the battlefield, this was really more about setting the stage, I think, rather than focusing on the specific details of battles. What was interesting to me was to hear a little about what people may have been thinking – whether they were afraid or looking for an opportunity to distinguish themselves, it was a very interesting look at war.

The characters were complex and changed over the course of the story. There were times when I really liked a particular character and times when they drove me crazy. The main characters were generally realistic and represented flawed people – I didn’t always like them but several were fascinating. This made the story more interesting and sometimes unpredictable. I don’t need to like a character to find them compelling or to enjoy the story. The layers expressed by the characters were wonderful and it was a joy to read about their evolution over time.

One of the most intriguing pieces was how the couples came together. It wasn’t so much about falling in love as it was about how these individuals with certain personalities and experiences came together to form loving relationships. In many cases, they managed to find that person who really was their perfect fit, even if that person would not be considered “a catch”. They worked at finding and winning over that person, so it was interesting to read their thoughts and experiences, and how they got to where they needed to be, and how it all worked out.

I was so pleasantly surprised with this one, as it grabbed me early on and kept me engaged. Parts of it felt more like Downton Abbey than great literature – only with 20-times the number of characters and a dose of academia thrown in. And Tolstoy is no slouch in those non-fiction sections on philosophy, history, politics and religion! I didn’t always agree with him, but it was apparent where the insights of the story, plot and characters were formed. There was no “dumbing down” to the reader but a sense of elevating the reader so they could more fully engage the story and characters.

This is definitely a book I want to read again – it’s just not possible to absorb it all in one go!

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