Love at First Read

TolstoyAt one point in Jonathan Franzens 2010 novel Freedom, Walter and Patty Berglund, the married couple at the center of the narrative, discuss Pattys recent visit to their lake house in Minnesota. They dont talk about the most consequential thing that happened during Pattys lakeside idyll: Patty slept with Richard Katz, a dark, sexy musician who also happens to be Walters best friend of many years. What they do talk about is Pattys fevered reading, for the first time, of War and Peace.

Ive been reading a ton, she said. I think War and Peace is actually the best book Ive ever read.Im jealous, Walter said.Ah?Getting to read that book for the first time. Having whole days to do it.It was great. I feel kind of altered by it.You seem a little altered, actually.Not in a bad way, I hope.No. Just different.

This is meant to be painfully funny, of course. Having just cheated on her husband, Patty is in fact altered. (And her marriage with her.) But Franzen is also getting at something else in this passage: the strange, exhilarating, unrepeatable nature of reading a great work of literature for the first time.Im a firm believer in re-readingIve probably read Marilynne Robinsons Gilead at least ten timesbut this doesnt blind me to the fact that the first reading of a book is a special reading. Its that first reading that allows you to approach a text with a sense of wonder, with an openness that allows the text to work on you even while you work on it; its that first reading that can cause you to exclaim with delight, What a world that such books exist in it! Upon subsequent readings, these thoughts and feelings can come to seem nave, even sentimental. But that doesnt make this initial sense of exhilaration any less real.Over Christmas break, I read War and Peace for the first time, and I find myself agreeing with Patty: its actually the best book Ive ever read. In part this is because its perhaps the most encompassing book Ive ever read. It contains fully embodied characters, intense historical and philosophical speculation, and precise, beautiful sensual details. Marilynne Robinson has written that great books are witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience. By this standard, War and Peace is a masterpiece. I constantly found myself thinking, Yes! Thats exactly how life is!As I type these words, I see how they might seem nave, even sentimental. War and Peace isnt life, after all, but Tolstoys rendering of it. Now that Im no longer under the novels trance, I recognize that theres a bit too much romanticizing of the Russian soul for my taste, and that the concluding section, in which Tolstoy offers his philosophy of history and free will, might strike other readers as dull, though I loved it. Im not sure if I will stand by my (and Pattys) judgment of the novel a year from now; I suspect I will, but I cant be sure. I do know, however, that my thrilling first reading wont be recovered. Its why were so often sad to close the final pages of a great book: not just because we dont want the book to end, but because we dont want our experience of reading the book to end, either.

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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