This is a photograph of the Sea of Galilee, where I travelled with an old friend who was visiting Israel last week.
Reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a classic “bucket list” accomplishment, one of those books that many more people have failed to read than have finished. It has a reputation as being fairly impenetrable, so epic that it’s impossible to “get into”, such a massive statement that it’s hard to even get one’s head around.
I spent 2019 reading it. There’s a pretty fantastic online initiative called, rather unimaginatively, “A Year Of War and Peace”, and an accompanying subreddit of people dedicated to reading a chapter of this massive tome a day (conveniently, there are 361 chapters). I got one of my friends to join as well, and started a routine of waking up a little earlier than I usually would to spend five or ten minutes reading the day’s chapter. Sometimes I also read a short “meditation” on the chapter, written by a particularly dedicated reader with an interest in the book’s connection with stoic philosophy.
There is of course quite a lot to say about the book, which is far from impenetrable and actually quite readable, flowing and accessible: certainly much more so than I expected. It’s essentially an account of the remarkable War of 1812, a conflict between Russia and France, told through the eyes of a large cast of characters, mostly from the Russian gentry. The plot is unique among books I have read in its scope, which varies dramatically from the day-to-day peacetime lives of its characters, their love affairs and personal interactions with the war, all the way up to the movements of nations and great historical figures like Napoleon, who is also a character in the book. There is also a great deal of philosophy, particularly towards the end, when it becomes clear that Tolstoy’s aim with the immensity of the scope of his novel (he was actually hesitant to even call it a novel) was to demonstrate his theory of history as being driven by the sum of collective movements and decisions of all people, rather than by unilateral acts of great leaders, or influential academic ideas.
There really is everything in this book, and I think almost anyone can get a lot out of reading it. I learnt a lot about stoicism and found parts of myself in a lot of characters and scenes throughout the book. I was struck and moved by the beauty of Tolstoy’s descriptions of the seasons, of the beautiful Russian landscape, and of the intricate internal worlds of all people which collide every day in ways we cannot predict or understand. But more important I think than the actual content of the book, was the simple fact that I made myself get up every morning and read it.
I have become very aware this year of the power of habits and ritual. A habit is something you do so often that motivation to do it comes from a different part of the brain. It’s not active anymore, doesn’t create “cognitive load”, but rather you can trust it to happen instinctively, almost automatically. I’m familiar with many bad habits I have: biting my fingernails, eating badly when I’m stressed, and have become even more aware this year of particular emotional habits, or patterns, in which a certain trigger creates in me an emotional response because that is how I have been conditioned to react throughout my life, or have seen others react. All of these things happen on a lower level than the active mind - there are times when I don’t even realise I’m biting my nails, and all of us are familiar with the feeling of a rising emotional reaction that seems to occur spontaneously and surprisingly, as if by some external force.
What I did not appreciate enough, and what the experience of reading this beautiful book every day taught me I think, is that often we have just as many good habits as bad, and that changing bad habits or creating new good ones is entirely within our power. The first step of course is observance. As Plato is supposed to have said, “the unobserved life is not worth living”. Without developing an awareness of our shortcomings there is no hope or room for improvement (I wrote a little more about my personal experience and thoughts on observing myself in V).
Once we have observed, and noticed, and acknowledged, and decided to change, then begins the role of ritual in reshaping our experience. The active mind deliberately carves out time for something, and in order to make it stick one creates a ritual around this new thing, makes it “special”, creates a feeling of ceremony and weight. For me, carving out time in the morning to read War and Peace was the first step towards building a new habit of dedicating time to myself in the morning for reflection and thought before the day begins.
I began to notice the passage of time in a slower way - not the passing of seconds and minutes but of weeks and months and seasons. In the winter at the start of the year I was reading in the dark with a cup of tea and my cat, then as the days got longer and hotter I started to read on the balcony, took the book with me on my summer vacation to France, on my three week trip back to Australia, and now the year is drawing to a close and I’m reading in the dark again, with my tea and my cat.
The book stayed the same all year, just got a little worn, a little used, the bookmark rough around the edges. But I certainly changed, every morning as I held the book and read it and deliberately devoted time to it, it functioned as an anchor, pulling me into the moment, reminding me I was here yesterday, and I’ll be here again tomorrow.
The simple act of reading of a morning, at the same time, without fail, led to me doing a whole host of other things with my morning time as well. All of a sudden I was keen to get out of bed, to make the most of the precious hour I had set aside for myself. I began to notice new habits forming: I started keeping a journal and started writing this blog. And interestingly I began to experience some of the effects that I have heard people speak of after meditation. It became easier to observe my emotions and my reactions to things as they arose. I ate more mindfully and lost weight. I became more productive and successful at work. I read more books, different books than I would usually read. I felt closer to people and to myself.
I’m not putting all of these changes down to War and Peace specifically, or even the fact I read it every morning in this meditative way. But I wanted to share my experience of how reflection and growth seems naturally to lead to more of itself. These are the experiences and the moments I want to seek out in the new year: quiet, simple and meaningful tasks that can be done easily and which in the aggregate, over months and seasons and years, turn into something substantial. I’m still deciding which book I’m going to read in 2020 of a morning, but I’m certain this is a tradition I am going to continue.
I’m rewatching the Star Wars movies in preparation for the release of Episode IX this week, with my wife who isn’t the biggest Star Wars fan.