I have tried on more than a dozen times to read "War and Peace." Usually, I don't get much past page eight, the last time I got to page 15 and still didn't get it, except for the fact that the book describes the onset of Russia's war with Napoleon.
Children don't continue reading, and after the first few years, they balk at the assignments.
I've been in education and know exactly how young people feel about reading.
And now you'll probably tell me that it's our fault because we assign Tolstoy.
The fact is that I used to take surveys of the students in my classes on whether they ever read books for fun.
In other words, I'm not talking about literacy, but about a habit of reading fiction. (Though the lack of regular reading does seriously affect their literacy level).
Actually I agree with I.J. Back in the 1800's spelling bees would bring families in for miles around to hear this contest. Poets would find cowboys sitting in the audience to listen. There's certainly more people today than back in 1865, that's true. But percentage wise, (and maybe in actual numbers) far fewer readers.
To support what you have said, I would add that the best seller of all time in the U.S. was Thomas Paine's very effective propaganda pamphlet Common Sense. When it was published in the 18th century, it sold about 1 1/2 million copies. There were only about 1 million adults living in the colonies at the time. So, basic literacy was probably close to 100%.
I hope this doesn't offend or create controvery, but this could be attributed to the great number of protestants that first populated the colonies. In European countries (like Scotland) that became Protestant following the reformation, reading the Bible was extremely important. It was reasoned that once they had direct access to God, they needed to know what God actually had to say. In 17th century Scotland, there were lending libraries and community schools through 8th grade. Those traditions were continued in the colonies.
If that lasted until 1865 among the many that moved West, fulfilling their "manifest destiny," I don't know. But, as I reviewed the census records while tracking my family history, I found that most of the men did not tell the census taker they could read and had to pay notaries to sign legal documents for them. They were farmers and didn't seem to need to read, nor did they have much access to books; but, they knew how to conduct commerce and acquire and dispose of real estate in various ways--use grants from military service or other sources to obtain land, for example. But, that was in the South.
Following the U.S. Civil War to the present, all of the children were enrolled in and finished school (learning to read and write). Before T.V., I recall my mother telling me that my Grandmother sat up all night to read Gone with the Wind. I don't know if she had the same reaction to W&P or if a translation was available in the public library in Dallas in the 30s and 40s.
To bring up another potentially controversial issue, with the tremendous number of immigrants in the public schools now, I wonder what the English (or other language) literacy rate is in the country today.
I suppose I must have, but I don't recall enough to critique it. I liked ANNA KARENINA. What is most vivid in my memory is a novella: "The Death of Ivan Ilych," maybe because I took the trouble to read this with attention in order to teach it. The effort was enormously rewarding.
Tolstoy is very good indeed.
I got hooked on the PBS miniseries with Anthony Hopkins, which is what led me to the book. I'd read Anna Karenina and loved it, but hadn't even THOUGHT about reading W & P until I saw the teevee version. Then, when I read it, I realized how much MORE there was in the book. It took me nearly a year to finish it, but it was worth it.
The thing to remember is that Tolstoy wasn't obeying our modern novel commandments like 'grab the reader on page one.' You literally have to get halfway into the thing before you realize what you've got. To me, the greatness of it, aside from the writing, which I think is absolutely spectacular, is the sheer scope of the story. I mean, several lifetimes, and the Napoleonic wars. Come on.
I'm trying to decide what's more boring, the two times I read War & Peace (the new translation didn't help) or the book I'm slogging through now--Les Miserables in the unexpurgated edition.
Les Mis has to count as the the worst greatest book I've ever read, though the insanity of Hugo's philosophical digressions (on Parisian slang, for instance, or Parisian sewers) gets kind of intoxicating after a while. Tolstoy's philosophical digressions are too earnest to achieve that level of sublime absurdity.
Ah, hell. If I were you, I would stop reading it and go to Broadway and watch the singing version of Les Miserables. Yoooooo, ohhhhhhh, y’llllllllllllll La fue! You do make a good point, Richard. I think the best examples of sublime absurdity are any of the trite materials of yesteryear that have been turned into musicals. And speaking of the French, I’m waiting for the day when either Hollywood or Broadway will venture into their esoteric side and adapt the existential plays of Jean Paul Sartre and Camus into musicals. It would contain the imperturbable musings that no one can understand but sung in music that we can all appreciate. Or so we think.