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What's All This Then?

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War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

Field-Tested by Lee Klein

in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

November first to Christmas: coffee in one hand, book spread across other forearm while walking half an hour to and from work. Left bicep is stronger now. Pages are stained with coffee from holding cup in right hand, close to pages, to keep them from flapping in the breeze. America was at war and murderous Philadelphians helped the city discover a charming new nickname: “Killadelphia.” So I walked and read War and Peace to save the city: prospective homeowners would see me walking and reading, then they'd buy busted homes, fix 'em up, property values would soar, schools would improve, jobs would emerge, et cetera, ad infinitum, all the way to urban utopia. All thanks to one man walking and reading War and Peace.

Philadelphia, like War and Peace, offers plentiful wisdom and vivid experience. Both are bargains, too: Philadelphia in terms of rent; the book in terms of $$$-per-page value (1,358 pages). I loved that the translation by Briggs rendered the French in English (the primary complaint with the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is that the French is in French, translated in footnotes, therefore unnecessarily distracting). At times, it reads like Phillip Pullman, without polar bears, gay angels, and shape-shifting soul pets. I've never read a more vivid, exciting hunting scene as the one where they down the old wolf bitch. The snowy duel scene I dog-earred for easy access whenever I need a quick sensory infusion of textual awesomeness (Napoleon is a character, too. Who knew?).

Pierre is your noble protagonist, going through phases, trying to figure stuff out. In the 21st century, he'd surely be reading the book he's in, thinking that reading while walking will save the city, smirking when people say, “You gonna get hit by a bus, yo!”

Toward the end, there's an interesting exposition about the total unbeatability of combatants engaging in guerilla warfare, especially when addled by the “x-factor” (Leo's phrase) of desire to expel an invading force. Makes you think about the American Revolution, the first PG-13 movie, Red Dawn, and contemporary occupations, for instance, the one in Iraq (I wonder if the same thing would happen if our armies occupied the murderous parts of Philly?). It's “news that stays news,” which is Ezra Pound's line about great literature. History charged with the complexities of experience (its thesis can be summarized with one word: “quaquaversalism”).

The prose flows. The characters (once things settle after the initial ball scenes and battle) are distinct and alive. The setting is essential. The expository jags positively transmute DNA. What's more, reading this big-ass book is akin to a two-month travel in another country. Fictional experiences entangle with one's past, present, and future experiences. When I imagine Moscow burning at the hands of French invaders, I see Philadelphia as it stands now, not completely in ruins at all. Such sights are possible if you walk and read and don't get hit by a bus (or shot dead for the audacity of reading the biggest, baddest book of all while walking Philly streets).

Lee Klein's writing has recently appeared (or will appear) in AGNI Online, The Black Warrior Review, Canteen, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. He also edits Eyeshot.

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