St. Louis native Jonathan Franzen’s recent novel Freedom ignited something of a national conversation about the role of reading in our contemporary world. Do Americans still read novels? Do novels still matter? Do they still address issues of burning importance—personal, political, cultural? Or has the culture of Twitter and Facebook and text messaging taken us to a place of shorter attention spans and shallow immediacy?
Franzen’s novel explicitly invites comparisons between itself and Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace—a gargantuan tome that explores big questions of the sort that Franzen would like to imagine that his novel also engages. Among the so-called “classics” of literature, War and Peace stands as the iconic long novel. It’s the novel that Charlie Brown labors to complete for a book report over Christmas break in Happy New Year, Charlie Brown! Unfortunately for him, he falls asleep on New Years Eve while struggling with the book and thereby misses his chance to kiss the Little Red-Haired Girl.
War and Peace presents challenges on a number of levels, challenges that some of us among the SLUH faculty—along with some of our friends and spouses and JSEA colleagues from De Smet Jesuit High School—are interested in taking on. In a sense, we would like to commit ourselves to an activity that may soon or already be passe—the long solitary journey through a thick and difficult book. Committed to helping our students develop habits of intellectual patience and openness to new ideas, we see this project as a way to model and practice what we teach. In a sense, the project is an affirmation of the value of reading, put into practice with a novel that many of us have desired to read for years but have never been able to find the time to complete.
We also see the project as a way of connecting with each other and nurturing an intellectual community within and beyond our school. We hope that our discussions of Tolstoy’s novel will enrich our understanding of the book, offer us opportunities to enjoy each other’s company and delight in each other’s responses to art, and ultimately enrich our shared vocation as teachers.
At a group meeting on February 3, we decided on the following specific details about the War and Peace reading project:
• We will read Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation of War and Peace over the summer of 2011, finishing it by Labor Day weekend.
• We will meet three times to discuss the novel, on the following dates: June 18, July 16, and the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. (These may be subject to change.)
• For the first meeting, we will have read to page 418; for the second, to 820; for the third, to the end of the novel (page 1215).
• We will establish a blog for the project to gather helpful articles, continue the conversation between meetings, orient group members who missed a meeting, etc.
• We will look into the possibility of offering graduate credit for this project through Webster University for those who want it.
Currently we have around 25 faculty members who have expressed a desire to be a part of the project. The group includes members from various departments: English, Theology, Foreign Language, Social Studies, Fine Arts, Mathematics, and SLUH Security. Four De Smet teachers are included. In addition, several friends and spouses of group members have expressed an interest in participating.