I am a keen audiobook listener. I find I get more from a book listening to it read to me by someone else than I do by reading it myself: the structure of the book seems to emerge with greater clarity, and the strengths and weaknesses of the writing, characterisation and plot. I read books in print as well, but for me, audiobooks are more rewarding.
I have just read (listened to) War and Peace. 61 hours. The Bible was 77 hours, Great Expectations was 17, To Kill a Mockingbird was 12. So it’s long.
I’d previously read (in print) about 300 pages, and I’ve seen various filmed versions, the most striking of which was Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1966 4.5 hour Russian epic. So I had a fair idea of the basic plot before I began, which made listening easier.
I had in the back of my mind all the time as I was listening the thought that this was universally considered to be Great Literature, and two questions. The first was whether I thought myself that it was Great Literature, and the second was why.
At the end of it I still have the same two questions, but only very tentative answers.
To the first question, the tentative answer is yes, it is great literature. But what is really difficult is the answer to the second.
So why is it great literature? The first reason I have is the scope of it. It ranges over the whole of Russian history from about 1806 to about 1818, centred on the Napoleonic wars and their effects on Russian society as a whole and two families in particular. And the second reason is that in its treatment of both themes it is masterful.
There are long – very long – passages discussing the causes and the progress of the war. Tolstoy’s basic thesis is that wars are not commenced or won or lost by individuals who make decisions that have consequences, but rather by the force of all the circumstances existing at the time.
The second is that his accounts of the personal lives of the principal characters are deep and searching, and totally free of clichés of language or conception. The characters grow and learn and change in a wholly convincing way. Tolstoy was writing in the 1860s, in living memory of the times about which he was writing, and his characters have the emotions, assumptions, beliefs and values of their time.
I learned a lot from it – about history, about people, about Russia. Reading it was an effort, but the effort was repaid many times over.
You must have “The Patience of Jobe” to be able to sit through 61 hours of that.
Only my opinion, but War & Peace is possibly the worst book I have ever attempted to read.