Why Read War and Peace? The Reasons Why I Love Tolstoy’s Masterpiece

Anthony Briggs War and Peace translation
My well-worn (and well-loved) copy of
War and Peace

If you tell someone that you’re reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, you tend to get a reaction. People are impressed by it: the book is renowned as being very long and, generally, very difficult. People tend to praise your efforts, but at the same time refrain from envying your reading choice. I’m often told…

  • It’s too long
  • There are too many characters
  • The character names are impossible to remember
  • It’s difficult to understand
  • Tolstoy is depressing
  • Why would I want to read about war or peace?
I find it a shame when people tell me this. I wish I could reply, “no, you’re missing out on one of the best books ever written!” There’s a reason why writers such as Nabokov and Proust regarded Tolstoy as a favourite author.
Yes, at roughly 1300 pages it is a long book. But the first time I read the Anthony Briggs translation, I was shocked at how quickly I got through it. On my second reading last August, I finished it in twelve days. I struggled intensely with Cloud Atlas, but always seem to fly through War and Peace.

Here are the reasons why I read War and Peace, but also why I enjoy it so greatly.

  1. The truly incredible writing. You frequently find yourself thinking – or exclaiming aloud – “God, this is good!”
  2. The intricate portrayal of characters and their connections. The characters weave, separate, and reflect on each other’s situations in a way that is truly skilful.
  3. The incredible love stories. Some of my favourite literary matches are in this text.
  4. The great explorations of life and death. Read the book and savour its words: “a sense of remoteness from all earthy things, and a strangely joyful lightness of being…”
  5. Pierre Bezukhov is a truly remarkable character, and one in which I can see so many aspects of myself. His transformation is great to follow. Pierre learns that “man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within”, and goes on to state that as there is “a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom”, “there is nothing in the world to be frightened of”. This latter phrase means the most to me – it helps me realise that my anxiety is entirely meaningless and trivial.
  6. It demonstrates a true passion for living.
  7. It doesn’t present war in a positive way, although neither as terribly bad. You can make up your own mind. “If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war”, Tolstoy writes.
  8. You learn a bit about history. Napoleon is described from so many perspectives, and you can experience the historical context for yourself from a really great angle.
  9. Tolstoy was a fascinating yet very flawed man. He first visited a brothel at fourteen, was watched by the Russian secret police, and had a game with his brother that involved standing in a corner and not thinking of “anything white” for thirty minutes. What more can I say? If you’d like to learn more about him, perhaps watch this film.
  10. The characters are never static, but constantly developing. We see how they grow and change because of events, feelings, and other characters.
  11. Tolstoy manages to put everything into the grander scheme of things, and you find yourself appreciating life rather than worrying without reason. As one of my favourite quotes reads, “Yes! It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky!”
  12. Characters lift each other from depression with their own joie de vivre. Happiness is presented as contagious, and it’s remarkable to see how characters regain their love of life because of others.

“Here I am alive, and it’s not my fault, so I have to try and get by as best I can without hurting anybody until death takes over.”

I’ve learnt so much from War and Peace. As you can read about in my guest post on Better Living Through BeowulfWar and Peace became the antidote to the severe anxiety I had been suffering from for years. I first read it when I was fifteen, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that it changed my life.

I’m making an effort to reread the book every August, and while I’m very behind this August due to my upcoming move to Spain for eight months (leaving on Monday!), I’m still enjoying it thoroughly. This book has everything I need for a great read, and I’m sure it will continue to read a lot to me.

Have you read it? Did you finish it, or was there a reason why you stopped reading? If you stopped reading, which translation did you choose?

You can get the Anthony Briggs translation of War and Peace here.

Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.