There's no better time to read War and Peace. Really.
Reading groups like Tolstoy Together are making lemonade out of coronavirus' lemons
There's nothing stronger than those two warriors, Patience and Time, Leo Tolstoy wrote — and he would know. The Russians might have used both to defeat Napoleon in the Patriotic War of 1812 (spoiler alert?), but they're also prerequisites for reading the author's gargantuan epic, War and Peace. Still, I'm willing to bet that these days, you've got the "time" part under control.
Thankfully for those of us starved of social interactions under coronavirus quarantine, you don't have to find the patience to read War and Peace alone, either. A Public Space, an independent publisher and literary magazine based in Brooklyn, is hosting Tolstoy Together, a "free virtual book club" that allows for "a moment each day when we can gather together as a community." And if you've already read War and Peace, or don't have any interest in a 1,200-page historical treatise masquerading as an aristocratic romance novel (what's wrong with you?), then there are all sorts of other book clubs popping up to help you tackle the doorstopper you've always wanted to read, but been too intimidated to start before now.
Although Tolstoy Together technically began on Wednesday, you should have no problem catching up — the group is taking the book slowly, and as of this morning, they're only about 27 pages in, depending on your particular edition. "It will take us about 30 minutes to read 12-15 pages a day (much less than the time many Americans spend on social media), and we will finish the novel in three months — just in time for summer, and with our spirits restored," writes author Yiyun Li, who is leading A Public Space's read-along. But why War and Peace, and why now? Well for one, it's a damn good book (in this critic's opinion), but as Li more eloquently puts it: "In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing."
Tolstoy Together is a particularly great example of a virtual reading group, although as a concept, it is nothing new. There have been similar "group reads" of intimidating volumes in the past — Infinite Summer, in 2009, tackled reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, The Year of Reading Proust knocked off In Search of Lost Time in 2013, and James Joyce's famously befuddling Ulysses was the focus of a guided reading group in 2017 and 2018. Center for Fiction, a fantastic resource for New Yorkers, also hosts a number of in-person reading groups for bucket list books as well; the spring term features expert-led discussion groups for Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and In Search of Lost Time.
But Tolstoy Together couldn't have come at a better moment. It already has a vibrant community of readers participating just two days into the read — perhaps no surprise, since we're all trapped indoors. The group additionally benefits from A Public Space's active and inviting Twitter presence (you don't need to be an English major, or even a regular reader, to feel welcomed), and if you aren't a big social media person you can still follow along with Li's wonderful musings on A Public Space's blog (a sample: "Pierre reminds me of Winnie the Pooh, and is as dear to me"). Li also shares photographs of her annotated copy of the novel, which is a particularly delightful form of voyeurism for this fellow reader:
It's not the only group read you can get involved in right now, though. Coincidentally, writer Talia Lavin premiered the podcast Moby Dick Energy back in January without realizing that in a few short months we'd all be trapped in our apartments with not much else to do other than discover whatever it is Ishmael has to say. The podcast is now a ways along; she just released the episode for chapter 14. While there's a community structured around the Twitter account for the podcast (and there's swag!), the structure of Lavin's project allows you to also read at your own pace and listen to the back episodes as you make your way through the greatest American novel ever written (in my humble opinion).
Other groups for 1,000-pagers exist all over Facebook — just search the name of the novel you want to read — but you certainly don't need to pick up an enormous book while you're in quarantine if you're not so inclined. The Quarantine Book Club has a number of different, much shorter books and genres for you to pick from and, for $5, allows you to "talk to authors without touching anyone. Chats happen over Zoom, which is eazy peazy to use." Six independent booksellers also joined forces to announce the Translated Fiction Online Book Club, which will also be hosted via Zoom, with a new book for every week (the first is The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, which you can get for 30 percent off through the club; their full schedule is online). Lots of local bookstores are also finding ways to host book clubs as a means of keeping afloat and serving their communities.
My recommendation, though, is to give War and Peace a go. For one thing, you likely have the time, no matter how slow you think you might read! For another, there's nothing like working through a difficult, amusing, beautiful text with a group of similarly passionate readers. "Let's go — slowly, without rushes, without impatience, without fatigue, without weakness," urges Li. Isn't it funny how that works out — it's good advice for reading, but for navigating these hard times, too.
While America is practicing social distancing, I'm adding daily culture recommendations for how to pass those extra hours at home. My pick for today:
If you're looking for another excellent long book to plow through while in quarantine, I can't rave enough about Lucy Ellmann's 1,040-page Ducks, Newburyport, which is formatted as the stream-of-conscious musings of a housewife in Ohio. Because Amazon has deprioritized shipping books during the coronavirus crisis, your best bet is checking if your local bookseller is making deliveries (a lot of them are!). Short of that, try Bookshop.org, which is still shipping during the outbreak; for your convenience, all the links in this article will take you to their website.
Oh, and by the way — if you want to watch an adaptation of War and Peace, this is the one you ought to go with.