Why I Wrote Give War and Peace a Chance
War and Peace had been roaming in and out of my life for about twenty-five years—in almost a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of way. Each time I encountered the novel, it was a different book, evoking whatever was most alive inside me at that point. I happened to be rereading the novel in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis that was turning many peoples’ lives upside down—mine included. War and Peace became a new book yet again. I was able to clearly glimpse something I’d only vaguely understood in my previous readings: that whatever else this novel is, it’s a book about people trying to find their footing in an unstable, ever-changing world. How do you live in such times? Where do you find meaning and even joy in a troubled world? In 2008 these became deeply personal questions to me, and I sensed that many other people were—and are—struggling with them as well. I came to recognize War and Peace as the book for our times.
Even though I was then in the final stages of writing Understanding Tolstoy, I knew I had to write another book on Tolstoy. I wanted it to be a book that would introduce—or re-introduce—a wide audience of readers to Tolstoy’s most famous novel, helping them find both insight and inspiration from Tolstoy’s wisdom in the same way that I myself have been transformed by his art over the course of a lifetime. Because of the personal nature of the book, it was important to me to interweave anecdotes from my own quarter-century journey with Tolstoy into the discussion of the novel itself. And at the same time I wanted to tell the story of characters’ journeys in War and Peace, as well as Tolstoy’s own fascinating life story as it relates to the themes of the novel. The result, I hope, is a book the helps readers find the man in the Great Man and the living ideas in this Greatest of Great Books, ultimately inspiring them to want to read—or reread—the novel itself.