War and Peace was published as a serialized novel, completed in 1869. Famous for its girth and sprawling ambition, it merges historical fact with invented characters, and philosophy with fiction. For all these reasons, it initially baffled many critics, though it did find fame within the author's lifetime, and its enduring reputation is almost ubiquitous.
Though mostly an entirely readable book (depending on your translation - see the note on "Translation Wars"), it can also prove daunting. Here are a few words of advice for students about to undertake this novel:
1) Choose your translation wisely. Many translations abridge or alter the novel substantially. For more on this, see the 'Translation Wars' section of this ClassicNote.
2) Learn a little about Russian sounds and transliteration. Every version of the novel transliterates (i.e., spells) the characters' names differently. So, if you use any external sources while reading the novel, you will need to recognize slightly different spellings of characters and places.
3) Keep track of the characters' nicknames. Most characters are called by several different names. For example, Nikolai Rostov is Nikolai, Nikolushka, Rostov, and Nikolai Ilyavich depending on where he is and who is addressing him. For this reason, it is wise to use an edition that has a list of characters and their nicknames in the front of the book.
4) Understand Russian nomenclature. In Russian, each person has a first name, a patronymic, and a surname. When someone is being addressed formally, they'll be called by their first name and their patronymic – for example, Pierre Kirillovich (Bezukhov). Also, surnames have a suffix (usually -a or -aya) if the person in question is a woman. Hence, Nikolai Rostov and Natasha Rostova; Anatole Kuragin and Hélène Kuragina. Some translations remove the gendered surnames for the sake of clarity.
5) Know that not all named characters are significant. War and Peace is famous for the fact that it has nearly 600 characters, but the vast majority of these are only mentioned once. The fact that Tolstoy names characters that other novelists would usually leave unnamed (like servants, distant relatives, and acquaintances) speaks to his literary humanism. Every character in the novel, he suggests, deserves a name; they all have back stories and unique perspectives, even if Tolstoy does not describe them in detail.