Why you should read War and Peace on your phone

Clive Thompson decided to read War and Peace on his phone. It turned out to be a journey that took him into the heart of attention, distraction, and focus in a digital age.
Author and journalist Clive Thompson did an experiment to see what it was like to read War and Peace on his phone. (Catalina Kulczar)

It's a cliché that Tolstoy's War and Peace is a difficult book. At over a thousand pages and half a million words, it's physically imposing.

"I would go to the bookstore and pick up something like War and Peace and I would go, well this is really really heavy and it's the size of a door stop. If I get this I'll sit at home and read it a little bit but I won't be able to carry it around with me. And if I can't carry it around with me, I'm not going to read it."

That was the view of Clive Thompson, a tech journalist and author.

So Clive decided to try an experiment: what would happen if he read War and Peace on his phone?

One of the biggest challenges of trying to do any sort of work on your phone is the temptation to see what's happening online. "You're always one click away from a raging cocktail party," Clive says. But along the way, something clicked. "The moment I think the distractions dropped away was really the moment the book became compelling and amazing."

"Once I was swept up, this weird container that this book was in, which was a phone, sort of vanished," Clive says. "I was just as there, and deeply there, as if I were reading it on paper."

French troops crossing the Berezina River in Russia, November 1812. (The British Library)

While he eventually found it possible to read the tome, Clive still longed for certain aspects of traditional books. "Everything is trying to drive me away from this book. I mean, a paper book is so much superior aesthetically."   

"Sometimes I still wish, I feel like, maybe there's something that will eventually emerge technologically that will give electronic books something closer to the wonderful, gorgeous ergonomics and haptics of paper books. Each of them also has something that the other lacks."   

Part of what limits the appeal of e-books might not be their fault. Clive says that we have so much associated with paper books that transferring those traits to e-books isn't as simple as uploading the great works of literature.

"One of the reasons why I love reading paper books is because I grew up thinking these were these wonderful vessels of civilization, and that being an awesome person meant reading a lot," Clive says. "And reading meant reading a paper book. Sitting there with the light down at night curled up in a chair.

"So there's kind of an intellectual seriousness that takes over me when I open up a paper book. And the interesting thing about digital books, or digital reading at all, is that people don't seem to treat it with that level of seriousness. I don't think I did either. I always thought of it as something that was more throw away.   

"What started happening though with War and Peace and it's continued on, is that I started feeling that same seriousness of purpose. I realized that some of what makes you able to immerse yourself in a work of literature is that seriousness of purpose."     


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