At first I was doing it, because it sounded cute to say it, “I’m reading the longest book I could think of, on the smallest screen that I own.” Those would be Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was serialized and then re-written and published whole in 1869; and my Blackberry Bold 9650 with its 480 x 360 pixel display. In paperback the novel runs about 1024 pages and weighs about 1.4 pounds. At a font size I found readable (the largest size), I was able to see about 18 words at a time on the average screen. I thought it would be the literary equivalent of digging the Panama Canal with a teaspoon. And I did it.
And here’s the really surprising news. I think not only that reading War and Peace on Kindle for Blackberry is a very doable, but I submit it may be the very best way to read this epic novel for a certain kind of reader. Please notice that I did qualify that last statement — I’m not saying that you haven’t read this novel until you’ve consumed it in 18 word bites. Nor am I saying that a paper copy or even an electronic copy on a more sophisticated platform, wouldn’t have considerable advantages. particularly when it comes to note-taking, bookmarking and highlighting. What I am saying is that for the pure experience of getting through an enormous novel that my whole life I’ve been too intimidated by to even pick up — Kindle for Blackberry was a revelation.
The first advantages are those that belong to ebooks generally. It’s much easier to carry around a door stopper like War and Peace in e-form. You don’t look like a pompous ass on the metro with your book cover of a high-falutin Russian novel announcing to the world that your shit don’t stink. This point is particularly important to me. I am terribly self-conscious of what my fellow commuters make of my reading choices. Present something too light-weight, too-Dan Brown-ish and it tells people you’re not important enough to be reading something that really matters. Err in the other direction by sporting a novel that contains multiple patronymics and you look like an undergrad or unemployed.
But there are some specific joys to reading on the Blackberry. The first of which is its structural insistence that you focus on the sentence you’re reading. You can’t scan down the page to see what happens next. You can’t be distracted by the prior sentence. It’s like how they teach some LD kids to read with index cards covering everything on the page but the line they’re currently reading. It is the most “in-the-moment” reading experience you can have. Your brain can focus exclusively on the 18 words in-front of you before moving on to the next 18. I found that despite the proliferation of characters with multiple names I was actually retaining who-was-who much better than I normally do. You would think this would slow down the reading experience, but honestly I didn’t notice myself reading at an appreciably slower pace. It took me about a month to read the book, which is about as much time as it would take me to read an epic of that size normally.
Next is the advantage of being able to read in meetings and look like you’re just checking email on your Blackberry — not that I would ever do that.
As for the book itself, it shouldn’t come as surprise, but War and Peace is a classic for a reason. Once you learn to tell your Rostovs apart from your Bezhukovs and your Bolkonskis from your Kuragins from your Denisovs from your Dolokhovs the plot basically boils down to stories from the front lines and the romantic imbroglios that occur in-between battles. The one that occupies the majority of the novel is between Prince Andrei and Countess Natasha. There’s also Pierre’s ill-fated marriage to Helene, who would have been right at-home in a 19th Century version of Real Housewives of Petersburg. A lot of time is spent on Count Nicholas Rostov’s love for his cousin Sonya, but eventually Nick decides he’s just not that into her and ends up with Princess Mary (who is Prince Andrei’s sister, who yes, is in-love with Nicholas’ sister Natasha. But Andrei dies in the war and in the end Pierre marries Natasha after his wife Helene overdoses. Turns out it’s a small Russian Empire after all).
The War part concerns the Napoleonic wars that were fought between 1805 and 1812. There’s the Battle of Austerlitz in the beginning, the battle in the middle when the Russians and French are allied, and finally Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, capture of and retreat from Moscow. Tolstoy fought in the Crimean War and so the details in battle scenes are particularly vivid. It is evident that Tolstoy believes that war is hell, that Generals are good for little more than jockeying for political favor and that the common soldier is an object of noble pity. He heaps much abuse on the notion of Napoleon’s “genius” and seems particularly invested in defending the reputation of the Russian Commander-in-Chief Kutuzov, who seems like a lovably guileless curmudgeon whose chief attribute was his inclination not to make things worse than they needed to be.
In this way Tolstoy switches between the story of the “great men” of the wars — Napoleon, the Czar, various generals and diplomats; and the “regular” people (if Russian Princes and Counts are your idea of “regular”). During the retreat from Moscow, Pierre, who is a prisoner of the French comes to a true appreciation of the peasantry and makes a sort of spiritual breakthrough in the deprivation of captivity.
If there’s anything to complain about from the experience of reading War and Peace on my Blackberry, I would have to say that I miss the ability to take margin notes and that the bookmark function was less than reliable. I know this is less of an issue on the more comprehensive e-readers, but as I’ve been writing-up this post I’ve had to rely more on my memory of the novel and it would have been nice to be able to re-read a few select parts that I had marked in-advance.
But overall, I am impressed enough with the Blackberry for Kindle experience that I’m starting Moby Dick tonight!