Anna Barker, visiting assistant professor in Asian & Slavic languages and literatures, is leading a 100-day virtual group read of War and Peace. The reading project, which began on February 1, has already attracted more than 825 enthusiastic participants. While reading the 1,000-plus page War and Peace might sound daunting to many, Barker has broken the book down into 10 to 14 pages daily. She offers commentary and discussion threads on a Facebook group called 100 Days of War and Peace. Barker will also be featured in the October 2021 WorldCanvass program called “From Revolutionary Outcast to a Man of God: Dostoevsky at 200.” We caught up with Barker recently to learn more.
You are leading a 100-day virtual group reading event of War and Peace. What inspired you to take this on?
With the beginning of global lockdowns in March of 2020, all intellectual debates and cultural exchanges moved to the virtual world where various cultural institutions offered respite from crushing isolation through book and film groups, opera, ballet and concert broadcasts, and art museum tours. On April 1, 2020, I started the first virtual book club through an Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature Facebook page dedicated to Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313-1375) Decameron (1353), written in Florence during the Great Plague (1346-1353) when half the population of the city perished in the course of just a few years. Boccaccio offered us a way of coping with the unimaginable circumstances of our existence through life-affirming humor and celebration of all that is most human in us. The 100 tales told by 10 narrators who escaped the deadly streets of Florence are filled with light and serve as a reminder that human catastrophes are temporary, and our spirit must endure and persevere no matter what. The reading ended on July 10, but the lockdowns remained. At that point I felt that the effects of the events of 2020 will be with us for years to come and all of us are losing something precious and irreplaceable – a personal paradise of a familiar and dearly-loved world that may never be fully reconstituted. These sentiments prompted the next reading – Paradise Lost (1667) by the great English poet John Milton (1608-1674), written in the aftermath of the English Revolution and Civil War that affected every facet of English society and disrupted the existence of every social group. The 10-day reading of the Ancient Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh was dedicated to all the loved ones we lost in 2020 since this 4,000-year-old book deals with human frailty and our inability to understand and accept death.
Anna Barker’s well-loved copy of War and Peace
What is the significance of selecting War and Peace for this group read?
War and Peace (1869) happens to be one of those books that readers are often motivated to start, but allow Tolstoy (1828-1910) to demoralize them with the vastness of his genius. I’ve been teaching War and Peace since 2008 in my University of Iowa spring semester course and invariably find that UI students relate to this novel more personally and deeply than any of the other books we cover. In addition, I held two public readings of the novel, the first in 2012 during the campus-wide commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and in 2019 during the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature Book Festival celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of War and Peace. Both readings took place outdoors over the course of several days with 110-120 participants reading the novel out loud in 53-55 hours. The Facebook 100-day format allows readers to take a much more leisurely approach to the novel and take time to appreciate Tolstoy’s style, composition, character creation, and spend more time with the history behind the novel.
How many people are participating in the virtual reading and where are they joining from?
What started as a small gathering of Tolstoy fans on the 100 Days of War and Peace Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature Facebook page in early January turned into a global affair of more than 800 participants on 5 continents reading the novel in Russian, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Polish, and Georgian all over the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Georgia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Germany, Poland, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal, UK, and Scotland.
At over 1,000 pages, many people find War and Peace daunting. How do you help readers overcome this?
The greatest goal is to make the novel accessible through daily commentary that touches on historical and cultural information relevant to the Napoleonic period of European history as well as references to literature, art, music, and film. The daily passages under consideration are quite manageable and do not exceed 10-14 pages. Participants are encouraged to read the War and Peace passages first, then consult my daily posts. The comment section allows all of the readers to engage in debates and exchange ideas and interpretations as well as contribute links and supplementary material they feel enhance our reading experience.
Will you continue to lead group reading events? Any idea what your next book selection will be?
2021 marks the bicentenary of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). In collaboration with the University of Iowa Libraries and Special Collections I am curating an exhibition entitled “From Revolutionary Outcast to a Man of God: Dostoevsky at 200” (August 16 - December 17, 2021). The exhibition is dedicated to the life and work of Dostoevsky and will be open to the public. In conjunction with this exhibition, I will offer 100 Days of Brothers Karamazov (September 1 – December 10, 2021) on Facebook. The format will be the same as 100 Days of War and Peace – but since Brothers Karamazov is not as voluminous, we will cover a much more manageable 7-9 pages a day. I hope the international success of 100 Days of War and Peace will follow us to the complex psychological and theological world of Dostoevsky and his enigmatically haunting and deliciously human characters.