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On Limits and Reading #TolstoyTogether

There is a standard figure, a soapbox-stander of modern public discourse, that claims reading, especially sustained, thoughtful reading of such classic works as Tolstoy's War and Peace, is on the decline. In his 1996 Harper's essay (repackaged as "Why Bother?" in the 2002 collection How to Be Alone), Jonathan Franzen argues that "technological consumerism" and the increasingly "atomized privacy" of personal entertainment has hastened the demise of serious fiction. From that moment to now, we can draw a straight line: "technological consumerism" has led to the internet strengthening our skimming skills to the detriment of our close reading skills.

How, then, to explain the group of thousands (representing every continent except Antarctica) who have spent the last ten weeks reading the 1224 page (if you count the Appendix) War and Peace? How can we reconcile the warring factions of book and internet with the increasingly rich discussion of this epic Russian novel somehow making its way through Twitter?

The answer, I believe, lies in limits.

Late in the novel, late in his strange, meandering life, Pierre comes to a certain peace:

He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and that those limits are very close.

It seems an ironic turn that it has taken Tolstoy over 1000 pages to bring his character to this critical understanding (a laughable hypocrisy); however, we will be best served if we, like Pierre, try to understand what limits have to offer us.

It is all too easy to conclude that the participants in this #TolstoyTogether reading group are not subject to the same neurological adaptations being wrought by the internet. We might conclude, like many before us, that the completion of a long novel like this sets us apart from the masses who are collectively skimming their way through the internet. We would be wrong.

Perhaps there are those among this international group who have thus far withstood the distractions of the internet and all its attendant enablers. For most of us, however, we grapple with it every day, every morning, every hour. Years ago, a commercial advertising exceptionally fast internet speeds joked about the idea of finishing the internet. We laughed because we knew that was impossible; we laughed even as we have tried to reach the end of the internet ever since.

Here's a common experience in my reading life: My email offers me the thoughts and ideas of numerous intelligent and interesting people. They link me to things they have found intelligent and interesting. I click to open the ones I find most interesting. Soon I have several tabs open, each full of something intelligent and interesting. Instead of reading them, I turn to my other email account (or more likely, Twitter) searching, it would seem, for more intelligent and interesting things to read. At some point, perhaps days later, I will work my way through the tabs, dutifully reading and thinking. Like working through a to-do list, I clear my tabs and then start the process over again.

The internet is a never-ending to-do list, and if we have adapted our reading habits to accommodate our sense of perpetual incompleteness, if we skim in the hope that we might make up some lost time, that is understandable. This, too, explains the way our collective societal anxiety has increased as our interactions with our phones has increased. The problem is not the screen, not the blue light, not the distractions, not even (entirely) the terrifying state of affairs in our country and in our world. The problem is the feeling that we are always behind and that we can never finish the work. We carry around in our pockets a perpetual to-do list, a constant reminder of our own inadequacy. No wonder we are anxious.

As someone who claims reading as her professional sphere, I still read physical books, sometimes long, complicated books, more than anyone else I know. Why, then, have I owned War and Peace for so many years without making it a priority before now? Our online discussion has come back to this question many times. The book is long, yes, but it is also extraordinarily readable, accessible, and eerily relevant to events of the day. The thing I have seen commented on more often than anything else is that the daily pacing of our reading assignments has been perfect, giving us just the right amount of reading to make this long work manageable. It is true. 12-15 pages of reading takes me about as long as my first cup of coffee, and it has never felt burdensome. I would argue, however, that there is something more important than the number of pages being assigned that has made this project possible. It is the fact of the assignment itself.

Our host, Yiyun Li (celebrated author, Must I Go coming July 2020), posts each day's reading assignment just the day before. To my knowledge, there is no public-facing syllabus that would let us read ahead. We receive our daily assignment, and we read it. That's it. And that is everything.

By providing us with a daily limit, Yiyun Li (and A Public Space) frees us from the never-ending to-do list. Those12-15 pages provide us with insight, empathy, and relevant examinations on the human experience. They also offer us respite. They remind us that we are but a tiny part of something much bigger than ourselves.

In "Why Bother?" Franzen tracks the consequences of what he calls, "the breakdown of communitarianism," and notes the multitude of cures on offer, including the World Wide Web, which he calls "a partial cure, or better yet, an endless succession of partial cures." Perhaps Franzen would be surprised to discover our small corner of the internet, a place where technology has found a way to respond to this breakdown. In our season of social isolation, we have found community, small and fractured though it may be, in reading a book together. Already, as we near the end, readers are wondering, reaching out, hoping toward the next book, the next way we can allow ourselves to be guided by a mysterious authority, submitting ourselves to the limit of each day.

And in this way, we affirm several of Tolstoy's central tenets. We are like the soldiers awaiting battle, immersed in their quotidian tasks:

It was as if the attention of these morally exhausted men found rest in these ordinary everyday events.

We are like young Rostov, who must choose between "his effort to arrange his life according to his reason and a humble submission to circumstances." And we are like Pierre, finding a way forward within the limits placed upon us.


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