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Old 28th Sep 2005, 13:07   #1
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Default How many times have you read...

Apparently Andrew Marr has read War and Peace 15 times!

How many times have you read War and Peace?

Tanya Gold
Wednesday September 28, 2005


Andrew Marr swears that, in addition to using his guinea pig as an alter ego (Mr Snuffles writes a column in a daily newspaper), he has read War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy's Russian brick, 15 times. He said so in G2 yesterday. But is Marr/Snuffles alone on his literary pedestal? Have the great 'n the good all read it 15 times, or do they just stick their noses in Heat?

I begin with AS Byatt. "Five times," she says. "I have read Dostoevsky's The Idiot more, but in a sense War and Peace is the novel. No other book remotely resembles it. Everyone who reads books reads it."

Next to be audited is renowned historian of Russia, Professor Orlando Figes. "I haven't read it 15 times," he says. "I've probably read it four times." From Figes to Anthony Beevor: has he munched through Tolstoy 15 times? "Twice," he mutters, "but I certainly will read it again at some stage." Max Hastings, too, can "muster twice". What did he think of it? "Silly question," he says. Hanif Kureishi is chattier. "I've read it twice and jolly good it is, too," he tells me. "I'd love to read it again, although it's bad enough reading a book once."

With Marr leading the field by a length from AS Byatt, I decide to bully Howard Jacobson. "I have read it only once," he says. "When I first read it I thought I should read it once a year but I don't like it as much as Anna Karenina, which I have read five times. I have guilt over War and Peace."

What about Harold Pinter? Another one who has "managed it only once". Bianca Jagger has also read it in the singular and wants to know, quite reasonably, "if prime minister Blair has read it". Joan Bakewell is saving her second stab at W&P "for my death-bed", and Will Self "didn't like it as much as Resurrection. It's a bit long-winded, but what the fuck." Alain de Botton (once) apologises but still believes this "entitles me to hold forth on the novel with huge authority". David Hare thinks his answer (once; another once - a plague of onces!) "is less interesting than John Osborne's. I think he said it took 36 hours, but I may misremember."

There are those who left it unfinished. But who threw Tolstoy in the bin? Step forward Peter Tatchell - "I find it very difficult to sit down and finish a book because of my 24/7 campaigning" - and Deborah Moggach, who says, "I read it when I was a teenager and I'm not entirely sure I finished it. But I feel I have. It went into me by osmosis." And who has never read it? A brief list: Tony Benn, Peter Hitchens, Frederick Forsyth, Rory Bremner. "I don't think I've read it," admits Bremner. "Maybe I should start now." There is a Tolstoyan full stop, or perhaps a comma. Certainly some kind of speech mark melts between us before he asks, quite sensibly: "How many times did he write it?"

What are our re-read records? And why do we do it?

I have never read War and Peace, and I think my most re-read book is probably LA Confidential by James Ellroy at 4 times (I think). I think part of this is that it was the first book I bought after a good six month period of non reading, and that this purchase took place some 8 or so years ago, so I have had it for quite a while, which helps!
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 13:18   #2
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

Well I have read Anna Karenina one-fortieth of one time - by which I mean I'm on page 25 of 1,000... There's a nice new Penguin Classics hardback of War & Peace out actually (Buy this from Amazon), which manages to make it look not much fatter than the new John Irving. I would like to read it at some point, though that really depends on how it goes with Anna K.

Although I'm a rereader, I'm not one of those people - like some of my friends - who reads a specific favourite book over and over (I can think of Gatsby, Brideshead, The Secret History for various people). Probably the books I have read most often are Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry (six or so?) and Martin Amis's Night Train (four? five?). It can be no coincidence that both these books are about 140 pages long, and crammed with easy quotability.
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 13:26   #3
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

Y'know, I really shouldn't admit this, but everytime I read yet another sweeping snotty-nosed statement from A.S. Byatt, I find myself loathing her just a little bit more. That ' ... Everyone who reads books reads it.' blanket statement is just so bloody her. But I do find Deborah Moggach's whimsical reading by osmosis comment quite, quite ticklesome. I've met this lady on a few occasions and believe me, she would never do anything so common or plebby as simply read a book by sight!
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 13:48   #4
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

Discounting Jilly (ahem) I've read Anna Karenina at least six times. I've also re-read the de Bernieres books (not Captain Corelli's Mandolin) quite a few times as well. I often dip into 100 Years of Solitude but my biggest re-read must be Catch-22.
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 13:50   #5
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

I'm not a re-reader and in fact can probably only claim Wuthering Heights three times (sadly it never gets any better) and The Catcher In the Rye, Midnight's Children and maybe a couple of Austens twice each. Plus the first 50 pages of Ulysses about five times.

I haven't read War and Peace though and I am a bit concerned about this article as I don't like the idea of falling into the same catagory as the odious Peter Hitchens in relation to anything.
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 13:54   #6
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

Great Expectations I must have read half a dozen times (and very recently), and To Kill a Mockingbird similarly. I have plenty of one-off re-reads, if you see what I mean.
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 14:02   #7
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

I've read War and Peace twice. I'm a chronic re-reader though; the first books I ever read were the Narnia ones and I've read each of those at least twenty times. My record is probably the Lord of the Rings (never let it be said that I'm a cliché) which I've read at least forty times, possibly lots more.

I do this less now though; I think my sense of how many books in the world there are that I haven't read even once has curbed the habit. I used to do it because it was safe; I knew I liked a book so why risk reading rubbish? I think children do that with everything though - I know I watched every Disney film we had until the tapes broke.

I think if I was going to do the same now it wouldn't be War and Peace I'd choose.
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 14:34   #8
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

I've never read War and Peace but do plan to at least once in my life. The book I've read the most times is Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and I know I'll also re-read Pride & Prejudice (and probably some other Austens) and The Catcher in the Rye several more times in the future. The Bell Jar and Austen because they're familiar and suit certain moods, when you need that fix and it's easiest to go back to them (and because they're great books, of course) and The Catcher in the Rye because it perplexes me and I feel the need to get a handle on it.
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 14:44   #9
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

Perhaps we ought to have a mass Palimp read-in of War and Peace for those who haven't braved it yet. Then we can urge each other on should Tolstoy fatigue set in. Anyone here able to say categorically which translation is considered the best? Would hate the idea of growing seriously old over a ropey version. In fact, following Deborah Moggach's suggestion, am wondering if there's an osmotic translation to be had someplace. Sounds far less wearing on the peepers and heaps more time efficient!
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Old 28th Sep 2005, 14:58   #10
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Default Re: How many times have you read...

I have re-read Franny and Zooey most often, I think. (Not counting the Jilly's either... )

I re-read the first two hundred pages of The Cloister and the Hearth every so often, and some of the Austens. I know I want to re-read The Idiot.

I re-read children's books too many times to count - Narnia, Willard Price, A Little Princess, Charlotte's Web; all the Aidan Chambers, Jan Mark's Aquarius and Eclipse of the Century.
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