Digesting Big Books

September 24, 2020

“War and Peace” might be having long-term effects on me.  Possibly.

– I am more forgiving of myself when I am confused by a situation, whether personal or intellectual, or even when I’m just looking out physically and finding the things in front of me confusing.  Tolstoy hammered home the point that all the world is confusing, and that most historians — I could extend this to most writers — simplify and flatten things out.  They impose sense on that which, when raw, doesn’t come with sense built in, and may mightily resist being made into human sense.

– When Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, rather than sinking I simply heard myself saying quietly that life is hard, and we must be prepared for the worst, without giving up hope.  There’s no reason to die of shame if bad or even disastrous things happen to us; they happen.  

– Life is hard but also full of joy, as the entire novel makes you feel.

Still, these are only word-lessons, and merely stating them to someone will not keep despair away.  Why have I fallen into depression before, and am not despairing now?  I proposed to my wife that maybe it’s because I read “War and Peace” this summer, and that great literature is fortifying in ways that we can’t explain intellectually (she added, not just literature but all art), any more than we are able to explain why food strengthens us. 

Merely reading “life lessons” in a book may do nothing for us, even if we analyze and memorize everything; but great literature engages us at a deeper level, a level where learning can dig deep and stick.  A level where learning actually results in growth and change.

And I think it may have made a difference to follow, in particular, Pierre’s long journey towards serenity and perspective with regard to all life’s setbacks and irrationalities, in politics and love and all the rest.

In that sense I think the length of “War and Peace” has an unexpected benefit.  It’s not just that a reader gets a LOT of a good thing.  I mean that for lessons to engage very deeply, you need to take them in over time.  If Pierre’s journey had been given in 100 pages, it may have delivered all the “major points” of what his story has to give/teach us, but it wouldn’t sink deeply or stick.

You need to let a book touch and impact and tickle and turn you, over time.

All of which is just my way of shouting from the rooftop: “War and Peace” is not too long!

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