Reading Tolstoy on the iPhone

by Greg Harris

I remember when Ted, my good friend and inspiration, went down. He was 97 varieties into Tios Mexican Restaurant’s monthly 100-hot-sauce challenge when he hit a purified concentrate of capsaicin. Now he was headed outside to sit in the snow, winner’s T-shirt beyond reach. “That’s just not fair,” he groaned. “It’s not even a sauce.”

This morning I feel the same outrage at Tolstoy. For two months, ever since a plane delay in China stranded me at Xian regional airport, I’ve been reading War and Peace on my iPhone. I’ve suffered blurred vision, nearly toppled the phone into the toilet, feared losing my friends, but up until now I’ve never wanted to stop reading. It’s the second epilogue that’s killing me. It bears no more relation to a novel than capsaicin does to sauce, and yet I can’t in good conscience avoid it. It’s part of the book and it must be read. Only, it can’t be. It concentrates all Tolstoy’s worst didactic tendencies in one place and takes away the storytelling that makes them palatable.

It’s just not fair. I’m 8,395 pages into an 8,600-page book (iPhone pages, of course), and I can’t make myself finish the thing. Damn you, bloviating Count! The worst part is, I know that a push of the iPhone button away, there is help, consolation, distraction. Someone, somewhere must have a clever appreciation of Tolstoy’s lengthy argument about historical science, or at least an excuse for why he indulged himself. But my pact with myself when I started was NOT to mix categories, not to make it Wikipedia and War and Peace, or War and Peace and Internet Trolls. I wanted to see if the consummate nineteenth-century reading experience could occur on the consummate (read: squinty) twenty-first-century screen.

I also wanted to earn back some self-respect after lying to my friend Anne for years about having read War and Peace. The author of nine novels herself, grand-niece of Sigmund Freud, she’d often demanded, “Don’t you think it’s the greatest novel ever written?” I always nodded: it very well could be. What I knew was that “Tolstoy,” volume 51 of my father’s bookshelf of Great Books, contained only the one novel, daring you—as did the entire collection—to pretend you were cultured without having read this.

And so I did. I pretended. With—as any descendent of Freud could tell you—high psychic costs. The iPhone download, by contrast, cost nothing and took twenty-three seconds. And the reading experience converted me to the whole idea of e-books. With a finger I could mark passages, add irreverent comments, note my envy of a turn of phrase. The text was available every moment, weighed not even an extra electron, did not disturb my wife’s sleep, and filled short bus rides as well as hours of waiting in Xian.

Really, the only downside, until the second epilogue, came of too much suspense about the outcome of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia. I missed bus stops. I stopped responding to email, and then to calls, undermining the entire purpose of having bought a phone. I risked the toilet, propping the iPhone on a medicine cabinet to read while flossing my teeth. I lost track of my kids’ plays in sports. I walked into traffic.

I loved the translation, too, and assumed it was different from the one that had killed my teenage interest. Then my father helpfully forwarded volume 51 (less helpfully, he insisted it come with the entire Great Books collection, thus neatly clearing out his basement and cluttering mine). Same translation, word for word, except for one key difference: the Great Books acknowledged and named the translators, which the e-book conspicuously does not.

And yet it read differently. It read better. I’m reminded of Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, about a modern writer who reconceives Cervantes’ sixteenth-century novel by recreating it word for word. “A revelation,” Borges calls it for, among other things, daring to use an archaic Spanish where Cervantes settled for the idiom of his time.

So it was with the iPhone’s War and Peace. Long sentences in a book, packed among dozens of others, are sometimes exhausting. On the screen I physically pushed through and then flicked them aside, following the story the way a conductor follows a score, my finger invoking subtle shifts in mood and pace. Everything glowed.

I’m a late adopter, but enthusiastic. I recommend War and Peace to all my friends. It’s free! What do you sacrifice? Only a bit of time you’d have spent on Plants vs Zombies, and the opportunity to impress on other people that you’re carrying around a vast Russian novel. In exchange you get one of the all-time great stories, free of back ache.

As for that second epilogue? I finally decided to call a friend who wrote his dissertation on Tolstoy. Apparently, for the first hundred years after publication, everyone hated it. Turgenev, a contemporary, said it revealed “the instability and immaturity” of Tolstoy’s thought, “and the conceit of a half-educated person.” William Garrett, in the New York Times, wrote that most readers “skim over the long disquisitions on history as . . . an unnecessary blemish.”

Even Tolstoy biographer Ernest Simmons imagined readers throwing up their hands at all the historical argumentation and shouting: “What, again! How dull.” But Tolstoy didn’t back down: instead he claimed War and Peace was something other than a novel. Vindication (of his theory, if not the reading experience) came in 1953 with Isaiah Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History,” which found in all the analogies about clocks and locomotives a work of genius that was also (in Garrett’s words) “the indispensable key to the complex and divided personality of the great Russian novelist.”

I’m skeptical but when I hang up, I download Anna Karenina. Even Tolstoy admitted, this one’s a novel. I’m in it for the sauce.

Published on March 15, 2013