Mixing Memory

The War and Peace Phenomenon

Here’s a little tidbit from my personal life that I thought I’d share, because I find it pretty amusing. I’ve always ridden the bus to work, because as anyone who’s spent time on a college campus knows, it’s impossible to get good parking spots unless you show up at about 4 am. On the bus, and while waiting for the bus, I read. I don’t read work-related stuff, because I like to underline and take notes, and with the bus bouncing me around, my underlines become strike-outs (when I go back to the paper, I wonder, “Why did I dislike this passage so much that I struck it out?”), and my handwriting becomes even more unreadable than it ordinarily is. So I read books; novels mostly. A couple years ago, I started designating one of the books I’m reading my “bus book,” which means that I only read it on or waiting for the bus, and I don’t read anything else on or waiting for the bus. With about an hour and a half of bus time (including waiting and riding) a day going to and from work, I went through about a book about every week or ten days this way.

Then gas prices started rising, and I began to ride the bus more and more, until I go to the point where I rode the bus pretty much everywhere that I couldn’t walk. That dramatically increased my bus time, and as a result, I started going through books at an alarming rate. So to compensate, I just started reading longer books. The last few “bus books” I’ve read include August 1914 (896 pages), November 1916 (1040 pages), Anna Karenina (864 pages), The Brothers Karamazov (824 pages), and Don Quixote (992 pages). Which one of these is not like the others?

Anyway, after reading those long books, I decided it was time to read the mother of all long books, War and Peace. At 1424 pages, I figured it would take me almost 3 weeks of bus riding to read it. It’s been 3 weeks, and I’m almost finished.

Here’s the thing I find amusing, though: I’ve read hundreds of books on the bus at this point, including well known classics, lesser known classics, well known contemporary books, lesser known contemporary books, and everything in between, and with very few exceptions, people have never said anything about what I’m reading. Oh sure, people sometimes ask, “What are you reading,” and tend to follow up with, “Oh, yeah, I’ve read that,” regardless of whether I’m reading Hemingway or Roger Schank, but they never just comment on what I’m reading out of the blue. But literally every time I get on the bus, someone comments on War and Peace. Every time! The conversation almost always goes like this:

Person on/waiting for the bus: “Is that… You’re reading that?”
Me, looking at the book in my hands and wondering what else they think I might be doing with it: “Yup.”
Person: “Wow.”
Me, trying to make it obvious that I’m trying to get back to my book.
Person: “I’ve heard it’s good. Is it?”
Me: “It’s pretty good, yeah.”
Person: “I’ve always meant to read that, but never got around to it.”
Me: “You should.”
Person: “Wow, you’re reading that.”

What is it about War and Peace that makes everyone feel like commenting on it? And why are the comments always the same? It’s freaking me out. Thankfully, I’ll be done with it this week, and can move on to a book no one thinks worth commenting on. But I’ll always wonder what it is about War and Peace that gets people’s attention.


  1. #1 Kevin W. Parker
    June 24, 2008

    Is it that War and Peace is pretty much the definite novel? If you asked people to name one classic novel, I bet that’s the one most people would come up with. It’s kind of archetypal, like “Hamlet” for plays, Beethoven’s Fifth for music, and the Mona Lisa for paintings.

  2. #2 Brandon
    June 24, 2008

    I think if you asked people to name one classic novel, they’d more often think of Austen or Dickens than Tolstoy. My suspicion is that War and Peace has a reputation for being both a very good novel and a novel very difficult to get through, and it’s the mix that creates the reaction: it’s supposed to be very good, so people want to read it (kind of), but it’s interminable, so nobody has the courage to do so.

  3. #3 BaldApe
    June 24, 2008

    I suspect that part of the reason so many people who haven’t read War and Peace assume it’s good is that if it weren’t really good, nobody would bother finishing it.

  4. #4 Matthew Platte
    June 24, 2008

    The mid-20th Century saw the end of a long period of cataloging and counting. Not that counting has ended, but it’s no longer sufficient to just go count how many monkeys are on that island.

    Back in those days, there was a cultural category for “maximum” things including big novel, and longest word in the dictionary (antidisestablishmentarianism) later replaced by Broadway’s supercallifragilisticexpialidocius (sp?).

    W&P, rightly or wrongly, was typecast (again, a Categorization and Counting-era concept) as the Longest Novel. Joyce’s Ulysses got the nod for most inscrutable Long Novel.

    Should a longer novel have been read or written since then, W&P would remain in its slot because we simply don’t think about literature in that way anymore. Popular music is a C&C dinosaur in that it still operates in the old way. Once a (typically dreadful) tune becomes popular, it’s permanently popular and one cannot escape hearing it repeatedly forever, at least whereever there are radios.

    Which is why I stay home a lot.

  5. #5 Pete
    June 24, 2008

    I think that it’s the iconic long/intellectual novel. Whenever a journalist, cartoonist, or pop author needs to represent a generic long intellectual novel complete with title, “War and Peace” is the standard title to use. There are certainly many longer novels, (especially if you include serial novels that might stretch to over ten individual books), and many as thought-provoking. But for whatever reason (perhaps randomly), the meme was established for “War and Peace”, and became self-perpetuating.

    Don Quixote is the odd one out, of course.
    And did you see Get Fuzzy (http://www.comics.com/comics/getfuzzy/archive/getfuzzy-20080619.html) last week?

  6. #6 razib
    June 24, 2008

    read it in russian and no one will ask….

  7. #7 austin
    June 25, 2008

    Here in Ireland, as someone nodded to, you would see someone, rarely, reading Ulysses and say the same thing – reading the purportedly unreadbale.

    I think Captain Corelli’s mandolin may (and should!) soon be added to this list.

  8. #8 shinjodenn
    June 25, 2008

    The irony of course is that reading this book requires what many would call “determination” … that is that reading this book requires a steadfast desire to finish it, because, among other things, it is ENORMOUS in scope, and yet the novel argues that history is guided by an inexorable determinism, on the individual as well as the aggregate level.

    It’s like a philosophical battle between Thomas Hobbes and Georg Hegel. (Insert your favorites if wanted, John Locke vs. Jean Paul Satre; Dan Dennett vs. Galen Strawson, etc., etc.)

    And of course, this leads me to the hard science in psychology with the work of Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen on intuitive libertarian notions of morality and how they are clashing with the recent discoveries in “neuroethics.”

    Perhaps the determinists were right after all. 😉

  9. #9 arby
    June 25, 2008

    Public radio’s This American Life, I think, did a wonderful program about this recently. Go look for it, I think you’d enjoy it. It includes a clip from “Cheers” where Sam has to complete the book in a short time. Cliff the mailman tells him that he has never read it, but has delivered the book club version and reckons it weighs 4 pounds or something. Coach tells Sam to give up, “No one can read four ounces a day!”There is also some serious discussion that directly addresses your questions.
    At the end of the Cheers clip, Sam finds out that “There’s a movie!!?” rb

  10. #10 Adam Haun
    June 25, 2008

    I’ve never read it, but it has a reputation for being very long. There was a Peanuts holiday special with a running gag about Charlie Brown being assigned a book report on War and Peace. After several days of reading, he finally finishes the dust jacket. IIRC he ended up doing his book report on it, too.

  11. #11 ed
    June 25, 2008

    I don’t know about W&P, but have you read Dickens in public? My wife claims that you attract the weirdest people when you do. She was reading Great Expectations on NJTransit.

  12. #12 CA
    June 25, 2008

    I suspect that most bus riders outside of major metropolitan areas have never read a book that long. And the title is a cliche for long novels, for intellectual stuffiness, and for accomplishment (“I’ve just read War and Peace” “Wow”). The notariety of the book and the demographics of the subjects are both probably important variables.

  13. #13 John Paul Minda
    June 27, 2008

    Nice Post, Chris. I’ve been working though lots of books (mostly 19th century novels) in the same way, though not on the bus (in the evening, after I’m done at work, etc.). Adam is right; its the Peanuts connection. War and Peace was featured many times in Peanuts Snoopy might have read it. It is the prototypical “long book” and people recognize it from Peantus (or from a cartoon that was derived from Peanuts). Moby-Dick would get comments too. Or Ulysses. Not as long, but almost as impressive. But W & P is big, long, impressive and everyone has heard of it (but not read it). The Man Without Qualities by Musial is probably longer, but no one has ever heard of it (outside of literature students). Probably no one has actually ever read it.

    But try reading Atlas Shrugged and see what kind of people come up to you. It is long (though not very good) but some people just love it.

    Ed: I started on David Copperfield last year and it too me forever (mostly because I read in the evening and fell asleep). I did read it and now am a huge Dickens fan. Now working on the less good (and less long) Hard Times. I think people think I’m nuts. Tolstoy at least seem serious. Dickens is serious too, but seem too goofy for an adult to be reading (during his kid’s swim lesson).

  14. #15 Black Yoshi
    September 13, 2008

    To the best of my knowledge the longest English word is a 45 character lung disease – pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

    Does anticalawhatsit even have a meaning? I’d always been told it was purely an example of a long word… Whereas antidisestablishmenttarianism (sp?) does at least have a meeting.

  15. #16 Tala Karinca yagi
    June 1, 2009

    Too long but everyone should read

  16. #17 Andrew Bruce
    April 14, 2010

    I think the one thing about it is you really need to be committed, because it is so long and has so many characters you can easily get lost even if you take a week off or so from reading it. Most people (sadly) either dont have time to read everyday, or (even more sadly) don’t care about making time to read. I have not read it (sadder still)

  17. #18 Cindy thomas
    January 29, 2011

    Just finished reading Anna Karenina and enjoyed it very much! Now I have started on War and Peace. My plan is to make a list of the characters so I can refer to it and keep track that way. I am reading as an ebook. The advantage of doing that way is the built in dictionary. This has greatly increased my understanding and enjoyment in reading these kinds of books.

  18. #19 Yulia Golovnyova
    June 10, 2011

    Chris, the post is wonderful (just imagine a person with such a thick book in a bus in Russia, oh no! it’s like having a grammophone with you!). And I found all the comments very informative.

    To Gindy thomas: One can also imagine characters so vividly that he/she could never forget them, just like one’s own childhood or something like that. Great books are worth it. After that you can re-read it for pleasure from every place. As for the dictionary… do you read it in the original? Wow! I did, no wonder, it’s my mother tongue, but it would be a challenge for me to cope, e.g., with ‘The Forsytes’ in the original!

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