I Don’t Remember What Happened in the Books I’ve Read, and I Don’t Care

Since I started reading more than 50 books a year I stopped remembering what actually happened in them. Character names, plot points, who did what to whom and why, these things float into the ether within weeks of finishing a book.

Every single time. Without fail.

I read The Orenda when it came out a few years ago and absolutely loved it. I mean, I loved that book. It’s one of my favorite pieces of Canadian fiction. Now, I can’t even tell you the names of the characters. Not a single one. I could pick them out of a lineup, sure, but as for instant recall, I got nuthin’.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay is my third favorite book of all time. I can name two characters in it off the top of my head. That’s insane.

This is something that’s bothered me for quite a while. Am I reading too many books? Am I not absorbing them the way I should be? Do I need to read fewer books, more slowly, to really squeeze the juice out of them? I was starting to think so.

And then I listened to the August 21st episode of The Watch podcast, “Critiquing ‘Game of Thrones’ and Previewing the Fall TV Season”. On it, TV critic extraordinaire Andy Greenwald talked about how the details of a piece of art aren’t important, or, at least, they’re less important than the feeling that piece of art leaves you with.

Instantly, I felt better.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 5: Comets Always Fuck Shit Up

Thanks to a bit of illness last week, I had to double up this week’s reading and cover Volume II, Part V, and Volume II, Parts I and II. If you’re interested in the domestic parts of these sections, please refer to my fellow #warandpeacenewbies‘ articles. For my purposes this week, I’m sticking to Pierre, the Great Comet, and the War that is now in full swing.


Pierre Finds His Morality

Up until this point, Pierre’s new lifestyle hasn’t allowed him many opportunities to claim the moral high ground. For the most part, it’s afforded him the chance to drink his face off, get into all sorts of high jinks, and fuck a bunch of people. Despite his Masonic leanings, he hasn’t exactly been virtuous up until this point. But when he refused to take advantage of a vulnerable, confused Natasha, he put virtue ahead of his own carnal desires for the first time in … well … ever?

Given that Pierre is essentially a simulacrum of Tolstoy, this moment felt more important than Natasha’s brush with disaster. Despite the fact that Pierre is only the focus of the section’s first and last chapters, his journey felt the most significant. In a way, Natasha’s challenges felt like a necessary interlude in Pierre’s story, a bridge that would take Pierre from one position to another. Her circumstance simply provides Pierre with the opportunity to be a moral man.

(I’m not sure if that’s sexist of me, or sexist of Tolstoy, but it’s probably sexist of one of us.)

The significance of this moment is further evidenced by Pierre’s experience with the Great Comet at the conclusion of Volume II.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 4: The Quest for a Good Life

This week’s reading covered Volume II, Parts III and IV, in which we jump to 1809 (then back to 1808), Pierre becomes the head of the Petersburg Freemasons and agrees to remarry Helene, Boris and Natasha end their courtship, Andrew (Andrei) sets his sights on Natasha despite Pierre’s protestations, and Nicholas (Nikolai) vows to marry Sonya.


In parts III and IV of Volume II, there is very little of what I would call entertainment, but this is one of the more interesting sections of the novel due to the narrative being driven by a simple, yet complex, question: “What does it mean to life a good life?”

So far, we’ve seen almost every character’s attempt at success or happiness foiled. Pierre thought he would find existential peace through the Freemasons but he’s made little progress in his quest for spiritual fulfillment. Andrew has become disheartened with his forays into both the military and the government. Marya is desperate for religious belonging, but she still feels something is missing. Natasha’s impending marriage to Boris has fallen apart. Nicholas intends to marry Sonya, much to the disapproval of his family. And the list goes on.

There was an undertone of cynicism to Part III, a cynicism I was long expecting but haven’t quite seen yet. (I just assume that every big-ass Russian novel will be sad as fuck.) And maybe I’m just in a bitter place in my life, but I enjoyed it. Tolstoy seems to foreshadow that every effort to improve someone’s life will ultimately end up fizzling out. Things are doomed to failure.

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