War and Peace on the Installment Plan.

Brian E. Denton takes an interesting approach to a famously long novel:

My project is a year-long, chapter by chapter, daily devotional reading of and meditation on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I read the novel for the first time seven years ago. I loved it. I wanted to read it again. The only problem was, and I’m sure my fellow bibliophiles can relate, I also wanted to read other books. I’m just promiscuous like that. So the question presented itself: how was I to keep reading War and Peace, a notoriously long novel, and still keep up with my other reading interests? While looking at Constance Garnett’s Modern Library edition I noted that the book is divided into fifteen parts and two epilogues (yeah, you read that right). Each part, in turn, is divided into chapters. Small chapters. I counted those small chapters and there turned out to be 361 of them. And that’s when I decided that I’d spend each year of the rest of my life cycling through War and Peace at the rate of one chapter per day. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past six years. It’s a curious, fun, and reflective way to read the book. It also makes it much easier. The longest chapter is only eleven pages and the average chapter length is just shy of four pages. I know this because last year I started a spreadsheet to compare the different translations. Anyway, this year I decided that I want to share this method of reading the novel with other people. To that end I’ll be publishing the devotional, complete with a synopsis and daily meditation based on each chapter starting 1 January 2017, on Medium.

At the end the interviewer, Lucie Taylor, asks “What will you do when you run ut of translations to read?” His answer: “Read them again.” Good man!


  1. This seems to me a pretty compelling middle way between the amateur (in the best sense) who enjoys an “immersive” experience of (long narrative) fiction and the scholar who dwells on short passages at a time, returning frequently to those same short passages. The cycling among translations makes the project even more intellectually rich. I’d like to read a long essay by someone who has done this – or perhaps there’s a book in the offing?

  2. I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” (in Russian) a chapter a day for the last couple of months. It’s a good way of reading that book as the book has not much in the way of action and is mostly a description of the moral improvement of its main protagonists, portraits of characters who mostly serve to illustrate various deformities of society and ethical viewpoints, plus vignettes from the late imperial Russian judicial and penal system. It can also get quite preachy, which is easier to tolerate when reading a chapter a day than when reading continuously, as I noted when I tried to make it to the end over the holidays (I didn’t manage and still have about 70 pages to go).
    For many of those long 19th century novels such a way of reading may actually come closer to the original experience than reading them from cover to cover in one go, as a lot of them were originally published ìn installments in newspapers and magazines (although I am not sure whether this is true with regard to “War and Peace” and “Resurrection”).

  3. So, does anyone know why the Norton Critical Edition (apparently) eliminates chapter breaks?

  4. The Norton Critical Edition uses the original Maude edition with some minor corrections. Aylmer and Louise Maude divided “War and Peace” into Fifteen Books and Two Epilogues. They tend to combine several smaller chapters into one larger chapter and add titles. For example, Book One, Chapter 1 is called “Anna Scherer’s soiree” and includes four original chapters. In other cases, they break Tolstoy’s chapter into smaller segments. Their chapter 3 “Pierre at Anatole Kuragin’s. Dolokhov’s Bet” is part of Tolstoy’s chapter VI. Using chapter titles and thematic breaks, they try to help the reader to keep track of the events in “War and Peace.”

    The year-long chapter-by-chapter “War and Peace” project is a great idea, but I found the retelling and analysis at the level of Cliff’s notes. In the title of Day 1, Anna Pavlovna Scherer becomes “Pavlovna,” which shows some lack of familiarity with the Russian names. I hope that we will see some interesting insights in his future analysis.

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