What to Read: Jeremy Anderberg is helping readers conquer War and Peace
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Reading Leo Tolstoy’s all-time classic War and Peace, as a group, at the pace of one chapter per day over the course of a year.
This is your second year of running The Big Read. What were your main takeaways from year one?
I didn’t anticipate its success! It started as an experimental offshoot of my book review newsletter, Read More Books. Would people really want to take a year to read a big, old Russian novel, though?
The first year was so successful, and I had so many people clamoring to be part of War and Peace specifically, that I decided to do it again in ’22 rather than dive into a new book.
The primary takeaway was that a large group book club and discussion works really well on Substack. The commenting and discussion features are robust but not forced. It allows people to consume the book club however they want; they can read my weekly recaps or they can participate in discussions, or they can do both. A book club naturally invites discussion, which makes every week’s recap really fun and engaging.
“A large group book club and discussion works really well on Substack.”
I also came away realizing that people truly want a deep, engaging reading experience. It’s a hard thing to do on an individual basis in our TikTok-soaked culture, so having a community and a little bit of skin in the game is the perfect motivation to actually read an intimidating book in a meaningful, conversational way.
What about War and Peace lends itself to this format?
After I first read War and Peace in the spring of 2020, I immediately knew I wanted to read it again. When I started digging into the backstory and various translations and whatnot, I came across the seemingly random fact that W&P has 360 chapters. (They aren’t sequentially numbered, so it’s not an obvious thing.) When I read that, a lightbulb went off: This would be a perfect book to read—and savor—over the course of a year.
Among the Russian greats, Tolstoy is surprisingly readable. What’s intimidating is simply the endurance required to read a 1,300-page novel. Since those 360 chapters average just a handful of pages, the reading can be done in about 10 minutes per day, and at the end of a year you’ll have conquered one of the world’s great novels. It’s a book that was perfectly made for this format.
Read Jeremy’s post: How to Read Long and (Sometimes) Difficult Books
Are you changing anything about your approach for the second year of War and Peace?
Only a little bit. It worked pretty well from the start, so I didn’t feel the need to fully rethink anything (at least for this year). I’m reworking, editing, and adding a bit of ’22 context to each week’s recaps, but the bones of the material are the same from last year. There are a lot of ways in which this Substack could function like a course in years ahead, where I’d have Sections for different books, and when you subscribe you could pick which course you wanted to go with.
What I did end up changing: Throughout most of ’21, I would post a weekly recap of what the group read that week as well as a separate discussion thread. I realized there wasn’t much point to that, so I started just incorporating the discussion into the weekly recap posts.
This year, I’ll also definitely send out more content to the free list. I haven’t totally decided what that looks like yet, but I’d like to keep that group more engaged this year.
What advice do you have for other writers interested in using Substack to host read-along book clubs?
I would really just encourage fellow bookish writers to get out there and do it! I think a subscription book club is an even better model for creating community than a “standard” newsletter (like my Read More Books publication). With a book club, there’s more of a central “product” with a start and end point instead of just a continuously running newsletter that lacks focus.
And here’s some advice that I’m going to follow myself in ’23 and beyond: Do new books on a quarterly basis (or even more frequently). When it’s a year-long club, the entry points are too far apart and it’s too easy to just forget about it or to have moved on to something different. Doing a new book every few months would offer more entry points for new readers.
That said, War and Peace is marvelously easy to catch up on and you could still join today, or even in a month or two, and be able to keep up. I had happy readers who subscribed even into summer/fall and just read the back issues.
What are some other books you’d love to incorporate for future Big Reads, and why?
I’ve had readers request The Count of Monte Cristo, another doorstopping classic that people struggle to read on their own due to its sheer size. Something like a Year of Dickens or Year of Austen, where we’d read multiple books by a single author, is intriguing to me; those names are so influential in pop culture, but people often haven’t read the thing itself. Middlemarch is on my radar; it’s one of the great English novels that deserves more attention. I think there are enough book clubs for contemporary works (all the celebs have one), so focusing on older or overlooked books is what’s most appealing to me.
Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?
I’ve recently discovered Alex Kantrowitz’s Big Technology and have come to look forward to his emails (and podcasts) hitting my inbox. I’m a sucker for a good Silicon Valley story, so it’s right in my wheelhouse.