I’ve had nearly a month to digest the masterpiece of War and Peace, and I’m still not sure I have cogent ideas about it. It’s undoubtedly one of the most intimidating novels in the entire literary canon, and yet I found it to be surprisingly readable and immensely enjoyable — far more so than a few other gargantuan novels from the era.
To help me make sense of it, I also read most of Give War and Peace a Chance, which is an accessible analysis and application for modern readers. I won’t cover it in-depth here, but I do suggest reading it after you’ve read Tolstoy’s original.
And finally for this week, I had the chance to ask former NFL GM Michael Lombardi some bookish questions.
Let’s get to it.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1867, 1,317 pages)
When I read Moby-Dick (1851), I was bogged down right away by the stilted, old-timey language and frequent discussions of whale anatomy and scientific classifications. It took me months to finish. Ditto for Les Miserables (1862); Victor Hugo is certainly more readable than Melville, but his multiple 100-page digressions were brutal to get through.
So I was understandably a little nervous to crack open the first pages of War and Peace; how long would it take me to get through 1,300 pages of textbook-small type? Right away, however, I was drawn into the wonderfully piquant social scenes (“peace”) and then the battle scenes too (“war”), which are less about gory details and troop movements than the psychology of the leaders and soldiers.
It’s a surprisingly readable novel, which makes me think that the intimidation factor of W&P is simply about the length and its reputation as one of the few novels to be considered among the very best ever written — an assessment which I have to agree with.
Over the course of 361 short chapters — just a handful of pages each! — the reader gets a bird’s-eye view of about fifteen years in the lives of Andrei, Natasha, Pierre, Nikolai, and others as they navigate Russian life during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. The novel is infamous for its many dozens of characters, but there’s only a handful or two that prove to be the center of the story, so it wasn’t too hard for me to keep track of, despite not necessarily getting all the detail and nuance. Fine by me, frankly.
What Tolstoy does best is convey the real-life complexities of people’s personalities and interactions; he paints social scenes better than any author I’ve ever read. Every character has admirable traits, every character has cringe-worthy traits, and every character goes through life’s general roller coaster of growth and change — both positive and negative. In Les Mis, on the other hand, I was struck by the caricatured figures of Valjean (all good!) and Javert (all bad!); it’s a great novel, don’t get me wrong, but the characters just don’t have much depth. That’s not the case with Tolstoy.
One last note here of my own take on W&P: there are a number of essay-like chapters, particularly towards the end of the book, that analyze Napoleon (among other commanders), discuss the meaning and making of history, and baldly refute the Great Man Theory. As a history nerd, I rather enjoyed these philosophical bits, even if I didn’t always agree with them. It’s hard to deny, though, that these musings make the end feel a little slow and even heavy-handed at times.
For its length alone, reading War and Peace will take sheer endurance on anyone’s part. It’s indeed pretty readable, but it’s certainly not effortless. The long trip is well worth it, and I frequently find myself thinking about Tolstoy’s characters. It cannot be denied its place in the pantheon of the world’s great novels.
The fact that it has short chapters that just about line up with the course of a year means that perhaps the best route is to read it at the manageable clip of one chapter per day. I’m in fact strongly considering doing that in 2021 as a re-read. Who’s with me? I’d love to have a small club going.
A Few Bookish Questions With Michael Lombardi
Lombardi has had a loooong career in the NFL. He’s been an assistant or exec under NFL legends Bill Walsh, Al David, and Bill Belichick (who has said that Michael “is one of the smartest people I’ve worked with”). He also served as General Manager of the Browns for a couple years, and now does analysis and leadership coaching. His book Gridiron Genius is a really fun read about NFL culture and how to build winning organizations. Michael is also a voracious reader and he graciously took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for me.
1. Your own work and writing focuses on coaching and leadership. What book(s) have most shaped your thinking in that realm?
One of the books that I seem to want to always re-read is Tom Peters’ and Bob Waterman’s In Search of Excellence. All of the Jim Collins books, starting with Good to Great and Great By Choice impact my thinking, which then affects my writing. Malcolm Gladwell always piques my interest, from Blink to Outliers, to his recent work Talking to Strangers.
2. I imagine your work involves a lot of non-fiction reading — books, articles, even scouting reports. What sort of fiction do you enjoy? What do you read when you're off the clock?
I will read anything that John Irving writes. A Widow for One Year is one of my favorite books. Don Winslow's trilogy of the Mexican Cartel is wonderful: The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border.
3. What are you reading now? What's next on your list?
4. Is there a book(s) you find yourself recommending a lot, gifting a lot, and/or generally just thinking a lot about?
That’s all for me this week! Let me know what you’re reading; I’d love to hear. Thank you for the time and inbox space. I appreciate it.