Failed summer reads

Rachel Smalter Hall, adult programs librarian for the Lawrence Public Library suggested Tolstoy's War and Peace as a summer read to herself and several family members but ended up being the only one to finish the classic.

Rachel Smalter Hall, adult programs librarian for the Lawrence Public Library suggested Tolstoy's War and Peace as a summer read to herself and several family members but ended up being the only one to finish the classic.


Rachel Smalter Hall, adult programs librarian for the Lawrence Public Library suggested Tolstoy's War and Peace as a summer read to herself and several family members but ended up being the only one to finish the classic.


Lawrence Journal World

Failed summer reading projects. Books pictured courtesy of The Dusty Bookshelf.

At 1,296 pages, it’s the equivalent of a couple of Twilight books sewn together, though not nearly as sparkly. In fact, it could make quite the dull doorstop — a big, Russian doorstop.

That was Rachel Smalter Hall’s copy of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” And for two years of her life, she felt every page’s weight on her slim shoulders.

It started off innocently enough, of course. Hall, the adult programs librarian at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt., was a college student when a new translation of the Russian classic hit stores, prepared for print by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the translators behind the Oprah’s Bookclub version of “Anna Karenina.”

As a college kid in a family of readers, Hall thought it would be a hoot if the whole family — her parents and all five children — read “War and Peace” together as sort of a genetic book club. So, she went out and bought seven copies of the mammoth book at $30 a pop. Next, she planned a reading schedule that started on a sibling’s birthday and ended with a family sit-down at the completion of the book a year later.

“People were reading hundreds of pages ahead, people lagged behind a couple of hundred, there were fights starting in the family about where we were supposed to be and people apologizing,” she says. “I mean, my family is pretty low-key, but the whole thing, it was a huge disaster.”

For the record, Hall did finish the book — by herself, though her husband did try as best he could to finish it with her. They decided it would be romantic to read the book aloud to each other. Turns out it’s not romantic as much as it is rage-inducing.

“Every night it would be, ‘Oh, honey, do you want to read some “War and Peace” tonight?’ And ‘Oh no, not tonight.’ And finally when we got to page 800, my husband admitted to me that he thought he’d commit an act of extreme violence if he ever had to hear Tolstoy aloud ever again,” she says, laughing. “And so, I ended up finishing it by myself, but it took almost two years. And so, my ambition of everyone getting together and reading it nice and neatly ... it did not work that way. But it was a great book and even though it took two years, I’m really glad that I read it.”

Yes, even librarians can have trouble conquering reading projects. But, like in Hall’s case, they also succeed at reading more than the average bookworm.

So, we asked the kind folks at the Lawrence Library just how to make your summer reading project a success, whether you’re reading a doorstop classic or buzz-worthy new release.

How to tackle your summer reading project

Have fun with it. First of all, pick a book or book project that won’t be a drag. Dan Winsky, who works in the library’s acquisitions department, loves nautical fiction. If it’s on a boat during the period between the Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars, he wants to read it. That’s why his current reading project is all boats all the time. He’s reading maritime fiction by Dewey Lambdin (the Alan Lewrie novels), Patrick O’Brian (the Aubrey/Maturin series), Bernard Cornwell (the Richard Sharpe books) and C.S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower). It’s a lot to tackle, but it’s got such a variety of writers, boredom is not a problem.

“The Alan Lewries Naval Adventure Series is 18 books. The Hornblower series is 11 books. The Aubrey/Maturin series is 21 books, and the Richard Sharpe series is 22 books,” he says, adding it to 72 books in his project. “That’s a boatload of reading! Boatload, get it? ... Luckily, they’re all wonderful stories so far!”

Document it, but don’t stress out. Reference librarian William Ottens is preparing to read one work by every author who has won the Nobel Prize for fiction. With the first award given in 1901, that’s more than 100 books and collections of poetry, but he’s got a plan. Read a little at a time, and then discuss — in his case he’ll be doing it on his blog, — and don’t beat yourself up about not reading huge chunks at once.

“Don’t feel like you have to tackle the whole project, or a whole book, at once,” he says. “If you have 15 minutes during lunch or a break, read a few pages. Take a half hour before going to bed and read some.”

Get extra motivation. For those interested in registering, you can give your reading schedule a bit of a kick in the pants with the Adult Summer Reading program through the library. It works like so: sign up, read any five books from May 24 to Aug. 21, attend summer reading events and be eligible to win one of five prizes, including Sony eReaders, a $100 gift certificates to 715 or Pachamamas and gift baskets from Au Marche and J&S; Coffee. For more information, or to register, go to

Accept recommendations. Not sure what to read or where to start? Check with the library or the clerk at your favorite book store to get recommendations.

“I think that’s one of the obstacles sometimes too, is that you want to do some reading, but you’re not really sure what’s good or what’s hot or what you’re going to like,” says Hall, who recommends the library’s NoveList search available in the research database section of “And we always love taking a few minutes to chat with people and finding out what you read that you liked and then (being) able to recommend things from there.”

But don’t waste your time. Susan Brown, marketing director, likes to point to the Nancy Pearl “Rule of 50.” Pearl is a famous librarian in Seattle and the inspiration for the librarian action figure and a big proponent of making things easy on yourself.

“Her ‘Rule of 50’ is, if you’re under 50 years old, and you don’t like a book after 50 pages, just stop reading it. And then if you’re more than 50 years old, you subtract your age from 100 and only give the book that many pages,” Brown says. “So, if you’re 70, you only give the book 30 pages. And if the book doesn’t grab you, whether it’s ‘War and Peace’ or Danielle Steel, that’s it.”

Consider an electronic version. The best thing about owning an eReader? The chance to easily sample possible reads says Hall, who will get a free one- or two-chapter sample on her Kindle and know if she wants to buy the whole thing (or check it out from the library). And, ironically, she thinks the electronic format can help if you choose to make a project out of a doorstop book.

“I ended up purchasing an extra copy of ‘War and Peace’ for a Kindle that I had been given,” she says, laughing at her eighth acquisition of the book. “Oh my gosh, having it on a Kindle made it so much easier to read. That is another fabulous summer reading tip for someone who wants to read a big book.”


Lawrence Morgan 11 years, 9 months ago

Great article! I will post this article to friends of mine who have families around the country and in Africa.

pizzapete 11 years, 9 months ago

Definitely a book all should read. I took a class on Tolstoy one summer at KU and ended up reading most of his works. That was a wonderful summer of reading.

Megan Green Stuke 11 years, 9 months ago

Dano! You are a reading inspiration!! I will be happy if I finish 5 books this summer and none of them War and Peace. (Which I read in college - one semester of heavy Russian lit, it was one of many. There was no way I had time to read it all so I only read the romantic "peace" parts with Natasha.)

DaniB 11 years, 9 months ago

I took on Moby Dick as my summer reading project five or six years ago, and I still haven't made it past page 70. It's also worth mentioning that many classics are available for free through the Gutenberg Project and in the Kindle Free Store too. I downloaded War and Peace a while back for free. I couldn't justify spending $30 on a book that I'm not sure that I'll like. Also, the LPL has a book club program where it will gather the copies of a requested book for a group, right?

overthemoon 11 years, 9 months ago

Ms. Hall, your brief tale of war and peace in the family while reading War and Peace is really a good story that begs to be a bit more detailed. Your assignment for the rest of this summer? Flesh that out into a short story...even a short short story. I know you can do it. In less than two years!!

Babboy...have you ever read any Rumpole of the Bailey? A bit work related perhaps, but light and very humorous stories about a reluctant barrister in Her Queen's court.

bevy 11 years, 9 months ago

I think War and Peace was the only book where I ever skipped parts. I skipped the political ranting parts and got back to the romance with Natasha. I am with you on Moby Dick - I have started it many times and never finished - and I am an English Lit major who is known to read Shakespeare for fun. The hardest part is giving yourself permission to chuck it in if it's not going well.

camper 11 years, 9 months ago

War and Peace is good to read slow. You can put it down and come back to it later even after reading other books. East of Eden gave me a similar joy as did Tolstoy's masterpiece.

If you are interested, one could start with trying some of Tolstoy's short stories. He is an easy read. The best writer I have ever read. The way technology is moving so fast today, it is nice to go back in time. Interesting how one finds people are still the same essentially.

pizzapete 11 years, 9 months ago

Come on guys, get with the program. War and Peace should take 10-15 days to read, tops. Same goes for Moby Dick. Turn off the tv and concentrate.

camper 11 years, 9 months ago

Tolstoy is my favorite writer of all. All the way up to the end of his life. I think I've read most of his stuff, but am always finding new things. I'll admit Confession was a hard read because it was troubling, but just about the most honest piece of writing one could ever contribute.

I have soured a bit on writers like Kerouac and Steinbeck, but Tolstoy is always true. He is surely a master of the art.

camper 11 years, 9 months ago

Describing War and Peace, as others have as being a combination of the political and a love story misses the point. Tolstoy, like Jesus, was apolitical. He necessarily pointed out how politics and social status and folly detracted us from the true human condition (which interestingly is exactly the same today). Tolstoy knew people inside and out. It is a love story through and through, but also a description of the human conditon. Just as Anna Karenina is the absolute equal in scope and power.

I started with these novels, but found that Tolstoy's religous writings (in short story form) were equally masterful. This was not hypocrital bible stumping stuff, but the true essence of Jesus' teachings and how it is present in human interactions. Totally powerful and heart-warming. Tolstoy is a master of the art (though he even criticised art). He reached for something higher, and achieved it....even thhough he had his own shortcomings, he described these too. Further giving his work the the passsng of ultimate, and honest truth.

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