The Tolstoy App
If you run into me on the New York City subway around a quarter to nine on a weekday morning, you will find me standing and staring intently at a small screen three inches tall by two inches wide, across which I will occasionally flick my index finger. This morning, were you to get on at 86th Street and Broadway and look over my shoulder, you would have read the following along with me:
Prince Vassily did not think out his plans. Still less did he think of doing people harm in order to profit from it. He was simply a man of the world, who succeeded in the world.?.?.?.
This is the beginning of the third part of the first book of War and Peace, in the 2007 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I am reading it on Apple’s iPhone. I downloaded Tolstoy’s gargantuan tome through the iPhone’s Kindle “app,” which instantly connects it to Amazon.com. It’s the same method by which the possessor of a Kindle—the electronic reading device manufactured by Amazon.com—downloads a book. The entire transaction took about a minute.
The passage I just quoted appears on page 201 of the printed version. The printed paperback of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation runs to 1,267 pages, so this means I am about one-sixth of the way through War and Peace. I will probably finish it by April.
I would like to say that reading War and Peace is a particularly glorious experience now because I am 48 and able to appreciate the nuances and complexities of this greatest of all modern prose works more than when I first read it as a teenager or for the second time in my 30s. But while it is certainly a glorious experience, I am not sure I am any more passionate or devoted a reader of War and Peace than I was when I was 17. No, what makes this experience glorious, in part, is that it is happening on the iPhone.
Most of the most salient objections to electronic reading have to do with the loss of the tactile. The physical book or magazine or newspaper is a thing, a thing made up of paper and glue, and its actual physical existence does give actual weight to the essential weightlessness of words. This magazine you hold in your hand—if indeed you are reading this while holding the February issue of Commentary—is an object. It exists independently of other objects. It is a thing in itself.
But in the case of books like War and Peace or multivolume works like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, their physical nature presents profound difficulties. They are heavy and unwieldy. Often the type in which they are set is too small because the publisher is trying to limit the number of pages required to print them. Unless you are somewhere smack dab in the middle of one of them, you will always find it hard to maintain a proper balance to keep the book stable in your hand or lap.
That is why I find it transformative to read War and Peace on the iPhone. The book’s bulk is no longer a problem. No matter where one is in the text, the physical object one is holding is unchanging and balances in one’s hand in exactly the same way. A book that fits in the palm of one’s hand, which is what the iPhone provides, is itself a singular achievement in the history of reading. I own a Kindle as well, and admire its typeface very much, but it is an awkward size, too big to fit in a pocket, and slightly discomfiting to hold.
If the Kindle could bend, the way this magazine bends, it would be the ideal reading device. And probably it, or something like it, will indeed bend somehow in the years to come. I have a gut sympathy for the notion that electronic reading poses a danger to the future of literacy, but that is due more to a sentimental attachment to the book as object rather than to the act of reading itself.
The notion that these devices represent the end of reading is to make a fetish out of the physical when, in the final analysis, reading is not something physical at all but rather a means—a glorious means, but a means nonetheless—for the transmission of creative human thought as expressed through words.