Tackling War and Peace
March 16, 2017
Soon to fly out, my son asks for a book: maybe "For Whom the Bell Tolls?" I'd pushed it some time ago, thinking he might like the tale of the Spanish Civil War and heroic bridge dynamiter.
I dash to the bookcase, throw the faded volume into his arms. His face falls.
"I was hoping," he says sheepishly, "it'd be a little smaller."
It's 500 pages.
He reads it — and calls to talk about the ending, and then calls again and talks about it some more.
Many years ago, I used to take two little boys to the library. My mother had always lugged home stacks of library books, or we kids went along and chose our own. With my sons, I'd be poking through the stacks only to turn around and see no one: They'd crept outside and were yelling and riding their scooters.
They've always joked about "all those books you always gave us for Christmas and we never read."
Yet about two years ago, the older son said, one day in the car, "I'm going to tell you something, and I don't want you to make a big deal of it, OK?"
I nodded: mute, alert.
"I want to start reading more books," he said. "I think it's the best way to be a smarter person."
It's a miracle. One of my boys is reading. Fiction, even.
Here's the problem, one I never expected. I don't read books so much anymore. Oh, I read and write all day as a magazine editor, and teach a journalism course on different genres. I mostly read the creative nonfiction that interests and inspires me and is relevant to what I do. I do read some books and listen to others on drives, but not as many as I'd like, and they're almost all reportorial tomes or memoirs. Novels? A stack of five sits on the bedside table.
Another stack — mostly from my mother, who has been in the same book club for more than 50 years — sits in my closet, tripping me up. I take a book on every trip, but instead of reading I often end up working or catching up on news articles or sleep.
Last spring I went on a walk with two friends, and they talked books while I listened, intent and abashed. Both Gregg and Annie urged me to read "All the Light We Cannot See," and when I started, I could not stop. I'd leave work at lunch and sit in my car and hasten along those 530 pages, because the beautiful blind girl was hiding in a wardrobe, and downstairs the evil Nazi was prowling through rooms, and if she moved…
But I haven't yet found the time to read the historical novel Annie recently passed my way, as her boyfriend, Chris, said, "Please take it. You talk to her about it. She couldn't stop reading it and saying, 'This guy's such an a——.'"
Then today my mother said she had gotten us tickets to the play "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" for an upcoming visit to New York. The production expands upon a segment from the immensity of "War and Peace." She can't believe I haven't read the book; she's read it (the translation) twice: once as a young mother, once a few years ago. "It made me a better person," she says. She thinks I should undertake it.
What?! Then I remember a favorite class in college where we pounded through "Crime and Punishment" and "Anna Karenina," which I loved, and "The Magic Mountain," which I thought would never end. No papers, just a midterm and final and a dense novel a week. (Years ago my friend Lisa was happily reading "Anna Karenina," a novel with a famous ending, which I'd known before starting. Eager to talk about the book with her, I rashly referred to "the famous ending where ___." Lisa's eyes bugged and her jaw dropped, and she yelled, "What?")
In high school I did a tutorial reading "Moby Dick"; in college, wrote a 100-page thesis on the fatties of Charles Dickens. As a child I read the Narnia chronicles and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, and in eighth grade I stayed up until 2 and 3 in the morning for a week reading "Gone With the Wind." Long fiction gives you whole lifetimes with characters.
I stop by the library. The book's a brick, a brick and a half, 1,116 pages.
The friendly librarian, with green hair and piercings, says, "Oh, I've read "War and Peace" three times. When I was 15 my grandfather slapped it in front of me and said, 'OK, you're ready.'" She revered both him and the book. "You love all the characters so much, and you know them so well."
The brick sits on my counter. I open it and start.
"Femaelstrom" appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at email@example.com.