April 6, New York: I took on reading War and Peace with no small amount of ego at the age 19. I plowed through it for an entire summer between my freshmen and sophomore years of college; I’d read a hundred pages one night and think “So much closer to the end!” only to be dismayed by the results. But the truth is I loved that book— it may be a doorstop, but it’s a really fantastic doorstop. It is actually one of three books that I’ve loved enormously that I have not been included in this project because they were deemed too long*.
I especially loved the epilogue. That weird little appendage at the end like a hilly 27th mile tacked onto the end of a marathon. Tolstoy’s theory of history, I realized as a 19 year old reader, was entirely post-modern. Fully a century ahead of its time and absolutely similar to something I’d just read months prior— Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality vol. 1, the ultimate treatise on power and agency for any college freshman in the Aughts.
That was the first time I ever found myself compelled to write an academic paper by forces other than teachers or professors— simply because I was so excited with my discovery. I brought that excitement to a professor who pointed me to Isaiah Berlin’s famous text (of which I’d never heard). That was both an invigorating and humbling experience. Humbling because despite the ego of my late teens, there was a whole wide world of scholarship out there and much of it on subjects I was interested in and I began to think that there was no truly new thought I could ever have. But that was invigorating, too. There was a wide universe of books out there I could read!
This moment is perhaps the first time I considered becoming an academic. I went out for a second undergraduate degree in philosophy and strongly considered pursuing a PhD later. Part of me still wants to read through all the texts out there like this one. But ultimately I think the humbling impulse that came with this slim book won out— that I realized it was a fool’s errand to try to read ALL the books EVER written on the wide array of subjects that interested me. And so I turned my writing to fiction and my career ambitions away from academia.
* – The three excluded books are War and Peace, 2666, and Infinite Jest.
Purchase this slim, little one-afternoon read from some faceless warehouse in the barrens a hundred miles outside the city you live in.