I have a nice fat copy of War and Peace sitting on my shelf. And, this morning, I finished reading Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece–without even opening the covers. How did I manage that feat? Via e-mail.
Way back on February 27, 2008, in a post titled “If I Start Now, I Can Be Done by December 2009,” I linked to a blog post in the Guardian about DailyLit, a then-new(-ish) internet startup that planned to deliver books to busy people via e-mail. I wasn’t exactly taken with the idea, opining:
I think this is exactly what some readers want: reading as exercise, an act of self-improvement to be added to the daily routine and then accomplished through a sheer act of will.
But, thankfully, not too many of them.
I was imagining some harried junior executive who wanted to be able to say he’d read War and Peace but wasn’t too worried about actually enjoying it–he just wanted to get through it. But, then, a little while later, on April 3 (I waited two days so people would know I wasn’t kidding), I announced that I had had a change of heart. Maybe I had realized that, due to my book-reviewing workload, I actually had more in common with the busy executive than I’d thought. I read all the time, but I rarely read books that I choose, and I always had wanted to read War and Peace, damn it.
I checked in a few times along the way, as I plodded toward the finish. I had set my e-mail deliveries for workdays only, so December 2009 came and went and I was still following Pierre through the Battle of Borodino, with the burning of Moscow still on the horizon. DailyLit does allow you to pause delivery if, say, you go on vacation, but I tended to let them stack up, which meant that some Mondays, returning to the office, I was reading War and Peace for more than five minutes. (Don’t tell my boss.)
I kept going, but, just as I still have mixed feelings about e-readers, I definitely have mixed feelings about reading via e-mail. Microsoft Outlook is a far less elegant platform than the iPad, for starters. It also took me a little too long to discover the HTML option, which was an improvement over the text-only e-mails I got at the start. And, as I noted before, footnotes aren’t always at the “foot” of the page. (When it comes to footnotes, e-mails don’t have a leg to stand on.) If confused about a character’s name, I had to open a previous e-mail, rather than merely turning back a page or two.
And, of course, I was reading my little chunklets of War and Peace in the midst of all the e-mails that flood in during the morning–this is probably the biggest point to ponder. After answering some urgent work-related messages, flagging a bunch of spam, and deleting a dozen poorly targeted press releases, I wasn’t always in the proper mindset to appreciate the genius of Leo Tolstoy.
On the other hand, there were days when his prose provided a perfect respite from the workaday world, and I found myself marveling at how much of his wisdom still applies to the world today. But, during the last few weeks, as the story ended and Tolstoy’s disquisition on free will and the science of history began (a good editor would have told him he’d already made many of his points), I did finally feel like that junior executive who just wanted to get through the thing. I had come so far, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to finish.
And I have. And now I can join all the other relentless readers who have read War and Peace (I am a card-carrying member of the Ulysses and Moby-Dick clubs, too, though Finnegans Wake will have to wait). Did I enjoy it, or did I just get through it? Well, mostly I enjoyed it. So much so, in fact, I have to confess that I kind of want to read it again.
On paper, though–just to see what that’s like.