Monday, June 27, 2011


It's funny how "reading War and Peace" has become a kind of shorthand phrase that means "spending one's time in a worthwhile fashion" or "doing something challenging and meaningful." For example, the following passage from this blog post about a government study of how Americans spend their time:

The findings are unsurprising at first glance: time spent on the job is down from previous years (thanks to the recession), women continue to spend more time housekeeping and caring for children than men, television-watching continues to be our favorite leisure activity, and time spent reading for pleasure remains abysmal (about seventeen minutes a day on average, though the numbers vary largely by age)....

Journal also notes that the increase in leisure time brought on by the recession hasn’t resulted, as one might think, in Americans finally getting around to all the productive things (like tackling “War and Peace”) they hadn’t had time for before, but in more television-viewing: an average of two hours and thirty-one minutes per weekday.

Why is this the case? Is it the length of the novel? The sheer investment of time and attention it requires? Or does it have something more to do with the ambitions of the novel—the way that it packs so much of life and human experience between its covers?

In some ways, it seems strange that a novel written by a Russian aristocrat almost 150 years ago should occupy this rhetorical position in our culture. Why not the complete works of Shakespeare? Or the Odyssey or the Iliad? Or Moby-Dick?

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