Sunday, March 01, 2009

Reading big, important books

I just finished War and Peace today; it took a couple of months, reading at a pretty leisurely pace. As I've already written, I fell in love with it from the beginning, and I didn't change my mind about it. What is amazing is that Tolstoy wrote such a beautiful, sprawling novel seemingly to illustrate his view of history and his critique of the great man theory. The Epilogue dealt mainly with his argument against the traditional view that watershed events -- particularly wars, revolutions, mass migrations -- are driven by heroes like Napoleon and Alexander -- that their will, genius, power-wielding carries the masses to do their bidding. His story, with its many characters, high and low, bad and virtuous, weak and strong, shows that this view is false; that causes and effects are impossibly complicated; that our perspectives are too limited; and it can only be the interacting masses of wills and relationships, along with a mysterious equation of constraints that he calls necessity and freedom, which actually makes "history." There is no way I can quickly boil down what he took about 1200 pages to get at and no guarantee either that I understood it perfectly as he meant it, so I'll leave it at that.

But here's one takeaway that I have from reading another of the Big Important books: it is nearly always the case that they are hyped to be much more dense, unapproachable, and difficult than they really are. Your reading pleasure will be maximized reading W&P if you are a student of history, particularly military history, but you can just as easily chuck all the theories of history and just read it as adventure and romance on a huge scale -- an epic family drama. The only difficulty is keeping the Russian names straight in the beginning, and of course the time commitment if you are a slow reader, but otherwise, it's great fun. I've had exactly the same experience with Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, and Ulysses, all of which I approached with a sense of intimidation, but which I found to be genuinely entertaining. (Okay, there was a long bit about the sperm whale industry in MD that made me want to poke Melville with a stick, but you can skip that; no one is going to call the lit police.) I was very nearly finished with Ulysses when I finally started to get the "big picture," but there are many charms along the way, even if you suspect you're missing a lot.

You can argue all you want about the dead, white guys dominating literature for so long, but it's not just a conspiracy -- the great books are really pretty great, and you can still enjoy the wonderful diversity of contemporary fiction -- men and women, white and black, the dead and the undead (vampires have had their voices silenced for far too long).

Perhaps, I'll test my theory further one day if I ever read Finnegan's Wake, which has always looked fairly incomprehensible to me. If you've read it, let me know.

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