Beloved Leo Tolstoy novels photographed from above
Beloved Leo Tolstoy novels photographed from above

On 16 March, a week before lockdown began in the UK, author Yiyun Li posted an invitation online. "In these coming weeks and months, when every one of us has to turn ourselves into a master of living through a harsh reality, I wonder if I could invite you to read and discuss War and Peace with me," she wrote on the website of Brooklyn literary review A Public Space. "I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide."

The Chinese-American author is no stranger to Leo Tolstoy’s 1440-page-long masterpiece, which she reads every year. Almost exactly a month earlier, a photograph of her latest copy of War and Peace appeared in 1843 magazine, bristling with a rainbow of Post-It notes – "on one reading I would use pink tags, on the next I’d use green, and so on. Eventually I ran out of colours and then ran out of space… I need to get a fresh copy," she explained.

The launch of #TolstoyTogether, Li's unofficial international War and Peace book club, attracted 3,000 members from six continents. She laid out the challenge simply: "It will take us about 30 minutes to read 12-15 pages a day and we will finish the novel in three months – just in time for summer, and with our spirits restored."

Summer has passed, we’re in the throes of autumn, most of the world is looking down an uneasy tunnel of another lockdown – and thousands of people have read War and Peace. The book is among a handful of long classics to have enjoyed an unexpected boost in sales this year – a staggering 69% on 2019. Sales of Anna Karenina, also by Tolstoy, have risen by 52%, Don Quixote by 53%. A boost in popularity for centuries-old doorstoppers is among the unpredictable events of 2020.

To look back at our approach to lockdown, on the cusp of spring, is to see some people maniacally trying to fill time. Many keyworkers were left working harder than ever, but for those encouraged to work from home the lack of commuting, socialising and straying beyond one’s postcode left a potentially overwhelming expanse every day. How better to fill it than by tackling the canon?

In May, a study by Nielsen found that people had nearly doubled the amount of time they spent reading in lockdown, from 3.5 hours a week to six. Thirty-five percent of those asked felt books were providing "an escape from the crisis."

But even the people responsible for publishing the classics were surprised by the extent to which people were grasping for them. "We were expecting possibly to see a spike in comfort reads, like cosy crime or light comic novels," says Jess Harrison, Editorial Director of Penguin Classics. "Instead it seems that readers have been inspired in lockdown to tackle the great literary monuments – the books that maybe they’d always intended to read, but never before now had the time to embark on." Instead, as Brand Director Sam Voulters put it: "Perhaps readers have seen lockdown as an opportunity to tackle a book they’ve always meant to read but never had the time to."

"There has been a feeling among many of us that this year might offer us some kind of space, some kind of opening," says author Viv Groskop, whose 2018 book, The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, has proven a bestseller in Russia over lockdown under the title Self-Help: Tolstoy-Style. "It’s a great moment to look yourself in the eye and ask yourself whether you really are going to read War and Peace like you always promised yourself you would. It’s a sort of a reckoning. Are you the reader you pretended to yourself that you were?"

And it’s not just War and Peace: The Count of Monte Cristo, Crime and Punishment and Middlemarch have all enjoyed unlikely boosts in sales figures this year. George Eliot’s book – deemed "one of the few English novels written for grownup people" by Virginia Woolf – is about what happens when lofty ideas meet the hard compromise of reality in a remote pocket of 1830s Midlands, sprawled over 880 pages. Books editor Kris Doyle was among those who dedicated time to Middlemarch this spring, tweeting quippy updates as he went along. Similarly, Claire Fenby, who works in books marketing, started #Middlemarchalong at the end of June. Groskop, a lover of long novels, recommends “a strict 50 or 60 pages at a time is well-suited to a 14-day self-isolation.”

Occasionally, there were uncanny parallels between a 21st-century pandemic and the events of fiction written centuries before. Middlemarch features cholera outbreaks, War and Peace opens with St Petersburg socialite Anna Pavlovna contracting the flu but continuing to host a party anyway. "The scene of Prince Bolkonsky losing his mind while homeschooling Marya in math hit a little too close to home today," wrote a weary Lauren Acampora, author of The Paper Wasp, on Twitter at the end of March.

What may have begun as a highbrow way to munch through an expanse of time swiftly turned into something far more meaningful, and less perfunctory. On 31 August , #TolstoyTogether reader Shara Karasic posted: “That feeling when you have just 300 pages left in War and Peace, and you feel sad, as Tolstoy has been a bulwark of stability throughout the lockdown, created an alternate world to inhabit for these months.”

“This moment is so vacuous; everything changes every day and you’re completely adrift. There’s no anchor," says Philip Hoare, an author who instigated The Moby Dick Big Read in 2012. 'A long book demarcates seasonal progression and time. It can put you completely in a moment."

In removing so many aspects of life that had become normal, lockdown forced many of us to examine what we really wanted and needed to maintain in a post-pandemic life. These hefty classics, Groskop argues, can be perfect tools to aid such a process: "these novels of the 19th century – and Tolstoy, in particular – have a wealth of lessons to impart about how to live a better life, how to tolerate uncertainty and how to be at peace with yourself."

So how best to go about reading them with the first winter of the Covid era ahead of us? Online book groups have shown the power of connecting with strangers by reading a little every day, and consistency does seem to be key. "The best way to get through these books is to break them into chunks,” says Groskop. "Discipline yourself to read by chapters or 50 pages at a time.” She points out that screenwriter Andrew Davies, who has adapted Austen and Tolstoy, "advises getting an old second-hand paperback and cutting in up with kitchen scissors so that you can always carry a chunk around with you."

While Groskop is a Kindle reader who downloads classics onto her phone ("that way I can always scroll through a few pages"), Hoare insists that the physicality of a big book is part of the process. "You can really feel your way moving through it,” he says, “that’s your physical progression through the book."

Both insist that making the reading of these long classics some kind of challenge can be a swift route to failure. "It’s the worst thing – it just doesn’t work," says Hoare, and plenty of successful War and Peace readers have only finished the book after several attempts. "This might be your Tolstoy moment. Or it might not," says Groskop. "When it’s the right moment, you’ll get to him."

But the persistence is worth it: to engage with a long classic can be life-altering. "A big book can really change you. If you devote that much time to it, it’s a huge investment on your part," says Hoare. "You are relying on the author to take you through a great long journey."

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

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