18 Novel Facts About War and Peace

GETTY IMAGES (TOLSTOY) // AMAZON (BOOK COVER)
GETTY IMAGES (TOLSTOY) // AMAZON (BOOK COVER)

Leo Tolstoy's epic novel—featuring hundreds of characters, numerous plot threads, and a battle sequence that lasts more than 20 chapters—is the literary equivalent of a marathon. Here are a few facts about the author (who was born 190 years ago today), his struggles to bring War and Peace to life, and the lasting impact the work has had in Russia and beyond.

1. ITS ORIGINAL TITLE WAS THE YEAR 1805.

The first installment of Tolstoy’s work—"The Year 1805"—appeared in the journal Russian Messenger in February 1865. Serializing a work of fiction was common for writers at the time, and a way for Tolstoy to support himself as he continued working on the novel. The stark title indicated the year in which his story—and the rumblings of revolution—begins, and it’s one Tolstoy always saw as a placeholder. Other provisional titles followed as he continued working on the story, including, for a short time, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

2. TOLSTOY WAS INSPIRED BY THE DECEMBRISTS’S REVOLT OF 1825.

The Russian count’s original plan for War and Peace was nothing like the end product. Tolstoy envisioned a trilogy that centered on the attempted overthrow of Tsar Nicolas I by a group of military officers who became known as The Decembrists.

The first book would examine the officers’ lives and ideological development during the Napoleonic Wars. The second book would focus on their failed uprising, with a third book following the officers during their exile and eventual return from Siberia. Tolstoy saw the uprising as a seminal moment in Russian history—a turning point in the nation’s history when Western ideals clashed with traditionally Russian ideals. As Tolstoy began writing, he was so taken with the time period surrounding the Napoleonic Wars that he decided to make it his sole focus.

3. HIS WIFE WAS INVALUABLE TO HIS WRITING PROCESS.

Tolstoy would often insist that his wife Sofya sit with him while he wrote. She also served as her husband’s first reader, cleaning up his copy and noting changes she thought he should make. At Sofya’s insistence, Tolstoy axed a particularly racy scene from Pierre Bezukhov’s wedding night. Sofya would also copy her husband’s drafts into a more legible form for his publishers. As Rosamund Bartlett writes in Tolstoy: A Russian Life, her deciphering of Tolstoy’s “execrable handwriting, and then preparing a legible final draft of the manuscript was a gargantuan task.”

4. SOFYA WAS ALSO SHREWD ABOUT THE BUSINESS SIDE.

Tolstoy was pleased to see “The Year 1805” in serial form. The story was a hit with readers, and the publishers of Russian Messenger paid him well. But Sofya Tolstoy urged her husband to publish the work in book form, arguing that he could earn more money and reach a wider audience. They led to the 1867 novel War and Peace, which was only half the final novel. The book’s success inspired him to speed up his writing, which had begun to lag, and the complete novel was published in 1869.

5. TOLSTOY BASED MANY OF HIS CHARACTERS ON FAMILY MEMBERS.

While visiting family in Moscow in 1864, Tolstoy read his relatives sections of his work in progress. The family was surprised to hear numerous similarities between themselves and the characters. In a novel with as many characters as War and Peace (559 in all), this was, perhaps, inevitable.

It also added shades of authenticity, since some of Tolstoy’s family members, including his distant cousin Prince Sergey Volkonsky, had actually fought in the Napoleonic Wars. (As the name similarity might indicate, Tolstoy’s descendants inspired numerous members of the fictional Bolkonsky relatives). According to Bartlett, though, this was a common practice for Tolstoy. “Throughout his writing career, Tolstoy pillaged his family history for creative material,” she writes.

6. FRIENDS AND FAMILY HELPED WITH HIS RESEARCH.

A historical novel as long and involved as War and Peace required exhaustive research. Tolstoy read as many books about the Napoleonic Wars as he could. He also conducted interviews with veterans and visited battlefields like Borodino. But being one man, he didn’t have time to research everything himself. So he called on his father in law, Andrey Bers, who clipped old newspaper articles for Tolstoy and reminisced about his childhood in the early 1800s. Tolstoy also turned to historian friends for help, carrying on lengthy correspondences and even bringing some of them to his estate of Yasnaya Polyana. The most important asset in Tolstoy’s research may have been Moscow’s first public libraries, which opened in the 1860s as part of the cultural awakening that swept through the city.

7. IT TOOK HIM A YEAR TO WRITE THE OPENING SCENE.

War and Peace opens at a high-society soiree that introduces the reader to many of the novel’s principal characters. It’s an elegant beginning that took Tolstoy 15 drafts and nearly one year’s time before he was satisfied. A perfectionist, Tolstoy insisted on getting the introduction right before moving on. Thankfully for him, the rest of the novel came out at a faster pace.

8. TOLSTOY WAS CONSTANTLY REVISING.

Scholars note that Tolstoy’s progress on War and Peace frequently stalled as the author reworked portions of the book again and again. The constant churn could be frustrating to the author, who would often clear his head with hunting excursions on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Even after the six volumes of War and Peace were completed, Tolstoy went back and revised. He cut out pages and pages of commentary, eventually whittling the work down to four volumes.

9. HE FOUGHT FOR A BIG PAY DAY—AND GOT IT.

When he had previously published in Russian Messenger, Tolstoy received 50 rubles for each printer’s sheet. For Tolstoy’s war epic, publisher Mikhail Katkov wanted to continue paying the author at this rate. But according to Bartlett, Tolstoy knew he was worth more than that, and demanded 300 rubles per sheet. After hours of tense negotiations, Katkov agreed to the rate, and Tolstoy received 3000 rubles for the ten sheets that made up the first installment of “1805.” Consider that the average monthly wage for a Russian worker was 10 rubles, and you get some idea of just how much money Tolstoy was bringing in.

10. IT APPEARED IN RUSSIAN MESSENGER AT THE SAME TIME AS ANOTHER RUSSIAN MASTERPIECE.

In 1866, as the last installments of Tolstoy’s “1805” were being published; another story appeared in Russian Messenger that generated considerable buzz: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Appearing in monthly installments, the story—alongside “1805”—made Russian Messenger one of the most significant literary journals in history. The significance may have been lost on Katkov who, in addition to paying through the nose to Tolstoy, struggled to get Dostoevsky’s monthly submissions in on time.

11. CRITICS WERE BEWILDERED.

“What genre are we supposed to file it into?” a reviewer in the journal Golos asked. “Where is fiction in it, and where is history?” The question reflected a common sentiment amongst critics upon reading a novel that told of real events, re-created real battles, and included real people like Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I. Was War and Peace fiction, or was it non-fiction? The truth, of course, is that it was both.

In dramatizing history with such scope and detail, Tolstoy had taken a massive leap towards the modern historical novel. History, Tolstoy believed, is the chronicle of individual lives, and fiction is the best way to reveal those lives. Many readers were on board, and War and Peace became a smash success. “It is the epic, the history novel and the vast picture of the whole nation’s life,” novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote.

12. IT PRESENTED A REVOLUTION IN NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE.

Tolstoy wasn’t the first author to utilize internal monologue (or the internal thoughts of characters), but many scholars credit him with revolutionizing its use. According to Kathryn Feuer, a Tolstoy scholar who had access to the author’s early drafts, the author mastered the art of presenting a character’s internal response to external objects and events.

She also noted, as others have, Tolstoy’s seamless use of multiple perspectives, from sweeping battle scenes that situate the reader high above the mayhem, to the intimate goings-on within the minds of Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and other characters.

13. TOLSTOY WROTE A DEFENSE OF THE BOOK.

Despite an overwhelmingly positive response to War and Peace from readers and critics, Tolstoy wanted to address those who criticized the work's genre ambiguity. In the journal Russian Archive, Tolstoy wrote an essay titled “A Few Words About the Novel War and Peace’” (which, being Tolstoy, was much more than a few words).

He made clear his apathy toward European literary forms, famously claiming that War and Peace was not, in fact, a novel: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less a [narrative] poem, and even less an historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted to and could express in the form in which it was expressed.”

14. IT TOOK A TOLL ON HIS HEALTH.

The six years Tolstoy toiled away on War and Peace taxed both his mind and body. Toward the end of the writing process, he developed migraines, which he often tried to work through but which would sometimes stop him in his tracks. After finishing the work, he came down with a severe case of the flu that left him feeling drained for weeks. The author took a prolonged hiatus from writing, focusing instead on learning Greek and building a schoolhouse for the children who lived at Yasnaya Polyana.

15. MILITARY MINDS PRAISED THE BATTLE SCENES.

Tolstoy was no stranger to war. He served as an artillery officer during the Crimean War, where he witnessed the bloody orchestra of battle at places like Sevastopol. Tolstoy channeled his experiences into the battle sequences of War and Peace. The Battle of Borodino, in particular, which comprises more than 20 chapters of the book, is widely praised as the finest battle sequence ever written. Russian military commanders offered glowing praise for the novel’s descriptive powers of battle and one former general even wrote that it should be required reading for all Russian Army officers.

16. TOLSTOY WASN’T MUCH OF A WAR AND PEACE FAN.

Maybe it was all the time he spent with the story and all of its characters, or maybe the development of his sensibilities as an artist, but Tolstoy became disenchanted with his seminal work shortly after finishing it. He wrote to a friend that he hoped to never again write something as bloated as War and Peace. In his diary, he wrote, “People love me for the trifles—War and Peace and so on—that they think are so important.”

17. THE SOVIET FILM ADAPTATION OF THE WORK WAS APPROPRIATELY EPIC.

When American audiences think of grand, costly films, the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Cleopatra (1963), and Titanic (1997) typically come to mind. But Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 adaptation of War and Peace has them all beat. Filmed over six years—the same time it took Tolstoy to write the novel—and lasting six hours, the film supposedly had all the resources of the Soviet Union at its disposal. This included more than 120,000 extras, many of them Red Army soldiers, used to film the movie’s staggering battle sequences, and a budget that ballooned to more than $100 million.

But talking to National Geographic in 1986, Bondarchuk said that these numbers largely weren’t real: it was actually eight hours (“some tradesman in America cut it without my knowledge”) and the 120,000 extras was an exaggeration and “all I had was 12,000.”

The movie, shown to audiences in two parts, was intended to bolster patriotism and to showcase the strength of the Soviet film industry. That it also balances action with strong performances and odd, intimate moments, like a soldier demanding a commendation in the middle of a battle, is a testament to Bondarchuk’s artistry. “You are never, ever going to see anything equal to it,” wrote Roger Ebert.

18. RUSSIA RECENTLY HELD A 60-HOUR LONG LIVE READING.

In 2015, Russian state television aired a unique live reading of War and Peace. Over the course of 60 hours, more than 1000 Russians from all over the world read the book in three-minute increments. One by one, readers from Washington, Paris, Beijing, Nepal and numerous other locations took their turn. Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, situated aboard the International Space Station, even read an excerpt. The event was organized by Leo Tolstoy’s great-great granddaughter, and included family members reading from Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate.

Springer Nature Has Published the First AI-Written Textbook

iStock.com/PhonlamaiPhoto
iStock.com/PhonlamaiPhoto

The first AI-written textbook is here, and its tech-heavy subject is exactly what you might expect from a machine-learning algorithm. As Smithsonian reports, the book, published by Springer Nature, is a 247-page guide titled Lithium-Ion Batteries: A Machine-Generated Summary of Current Research.

While it doesn’t exactly make for light reading, the fact that it was written entirely by Beta Writer—an algorithm designed by researchers in Germany—is a game changer. Sure, AI has dabbled with writing before, helping journalists pen articles and even crafting entire chapters for the Game of Thrones and Harry Potter series. (We highly recommend the riveting tale of Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash.) But this is the first time AI has authored an entire research book, complete with a table of contents, introductions, and linked references.

The information was pulled from Springer Nature’s online database. While the grammar and syntax are a little clunky, the book manages to get the point across. (Here’s one sample sentence: “Respectively, safety issue is apparently challengeable till now even after the first commercialization of lithium-ion battery.”)

With the exception of an introduction to the book that was written by Henning Schoenenberger, Springer Nature's director of product data and metadata, the finished product was left unedited and unpolished. This was done “to highlight the current status and remaining boundaries of machine-generated content,” according to Schoenenberger. The publisher hopes to experiment with AI-powered textbooks on other subjects in the future.

Artificial intelligence has certainly come a long way in recent years, and algorithms have been trained to carry out a number of oddly specific tasks. They can design beer, figure out the ingredients in your meal, find Waldo in a “Where’s Waldo” picture, and remake the music video of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” In one of the more meta developments in tech news, Google’s AI even learned to make its own AI in 2017.

[h/t Smithsonian]

25 Books Every Book Lover Should Read

iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov
iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov

Books have the power to inspire our imagination, transport us to faraway worlds, and make us think and feel deeply. Luckily, bibliophiles of all ages have a wealth of excellent fiction and nonfiction books to choose from. Here, we've gathered up 25 books every book lover should read—from classic novels to contemporary bestsellers.

1. Siddhartha // Hermann Hesse

Published in 1922, Siddhartha is loosely based on the life of Buddha. Hermann Hesse tells the story of Siddhartha, a young man who leaves his comfortable home and prosperous family to seek meaning. Throughout the novel, Siddhartha joins a group of ascetics, works for a merchant, falls in love, has a son, and becomes a ferryman. As an old man, he becomes wise and finally attains enlightenment.

Buy it on Amazon.

2. The Aeneid // Virgil

In this epic Latin poem, Virgil relates the story of Aeneas, a Trojan man who became the legendary ancestor of the Romans. Written between 29 and 19 B.C.E., during the last years of the poet's life, the Aeneid follows Aeneas and his men on their journey from Troy to Carthage, Sicily, the Underworld, and Italy. Like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it's full of thrilling adventures, frustrating obstacles, and heroic deeds.

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3. Man’s Search For Meaning // Viktor Frankl

Written by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, this 1946 book has influenced millions of readers around the world. By discussing his experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl examines how anyone can cope with horrific suffering and, eventually, move forward. Frankl also explains his theory of logotherapy, the view that all humans are primarily driven not by the need for power or pleasure, but to determine and seek their own meaning of life.

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4. The Handmaid’s Tale // Margaret Atwood

This dystopian novel, first published in 1985 and still one of Atwood's most acclaimed works, explores the struggles of people living under a theocratic, totalitarian government called the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States. Offred, one of the Handmaids, is kept primarily for reproductive purposes, and has no control over her own body or life—she's not even allowed to read. Atwood’s haunting depiction of this authoritarian society has been turned into a film (1990), opera (2000), and most recently, a TV show from Hulu.

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5. Walden // Henry David Thoreau

In the first chapter of Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” More than 150 years later, people still quote this line, which is a testament to Walden's influence and enduring legacy. Thoreau describes his two-year stint living alone, off the grid, in a cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The book has a little something for everyone, whether you're a minimalist, individualist, botanist, or ecologist.

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6. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being // Milan Kundera

The cover of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'
Amazon

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) starts in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Milan Kundera, who was born in Czechoslovakia but moved to France to escape communism, sets his novel during the Prague Spring, in which Czech citizens were temporarily given more freedoms. Tomas, a womanizing surgeon, is married to photographer Tereza. Tomas has an affair with Sabina, an artist who also loves Franz, a professor. Kundera weaves love triangles (or squares) in with philosophical ideas about the meaning of life, delivering it all in beautiful prose.

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7. Dracula // Bram Stoker

Long before Twilight, Dracula (1897) introduced many of the conventions we now associate with the blood-sucking world of vampires. The Gothic novel takes place in Transylvania and England in the 1890s, and follows the attempts of the Count to spread his curse. Although not a commercial success during Bram Stoker’s lifetime, Dracula has continued to impact culture more than a century after it was published.

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8. Saving Fish From Drowning // Amy Tan

Written by the author of The Joy Luck Club, this 2005 novel is about Bibi Chen, a San Franciscan art dealer who plans to lead a dozen friends on a cultural tour of China and Myanmar. Although Chen dies mysteriously before the trip starts, her friends take the trip anyway—accidentally desecrating China’s Stone Bell Temple and later (unknowingly) getting kidnapped by a tribe in Myanmar. Chen’s spirit accompanies her friends on their misadventures, which include plenty of slapstick moments and humorous misunderstandings.

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9. The Phantom Tollbooth // Norton Juster

The cover of 'The Phantom Tollbooth'
Amazon

This delightful children’s book about the power of imagination combines adventure, fantasy, and tons of clever puns. Since 1961, kids have loved reading about Milo’s journey to the Kingdom of Wisdom. He literally jumps to Conclusions (an island), meets a watchdog named Tock, and helps restore Rhyme and Reason (two princesses) to power. After his adventures, Milo realizes that regular life can be exciting, not boring.

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10. The Tao Te Ching // Lao-Tzu

In the Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu presents the fundamental ideas behind the philosophy and religion of Taoism. Divided into 81 short sections, the book tells readers how to live virtuously and in accordance with Tao, or the way that everything flows and happens. While supposedly written in the 6th century B.C.E., some scholars argue that multiple authors contributed to the text over hundreds of years.

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11. Blonde // Joyce Carol Oates

In Blonde (2000), Joyce Carol Oates offers a fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s thoughts and feelings throughout her life. The chronological account begins with Monroe’s childhood as Norma Jeane Baker, details her life as a young woman, and explores her experiences as “Marilyn” in the 1950s. Although Oates obscures the names of some characters, readers can easily determine when she’s referring to famous figures such as Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and former President John F. Kennedy.

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12. Treasure Island // Robert Louis Stevenson

The cover of 'Treasure Island'
Amazon

This 1882 adventure novel, about treasure hunters and a pirate mutiny, is hard to put down. Robert Louis Stevenson pits the teenaged protagonist, Jim Hawkins, against the greedy, one-legged pirate named Long John Silver. Though geared for kids, Treasure Island has inspired countless films, TV shows, plays, songs, and games—as well as our popular idea of pirates in general.

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13. The Elements of Style // William Strunk, Jr. And E.B. White

Reading and writing are intimately connected, and The Elements of Style is the preeminent modern guide for writing well. In 1918, Cornell English professor William Strunk Jr. wrote a list of rules for grammar and composition, which was published in 1920. Around four decades later, his former student E.B. White—author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web—revised and expanded upon his professor’s book. The guidebook, which instructs writers to omit needless words and use the active rather than passive voice, is a joy to read.

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14. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory // Roald Dahl

The cover of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Amazon

Rivers of chocolate, magical gum, and Oompa-Loompas—it’s all in this beloved Roald Dahl classic from 1964. After poor Charlie Bucket gets one of five golden tickets, he wins the chance to tour chocolatier Willy Wonka’s magical factory. After the other four children on the tour disrespect Wonka’s rules, Wonka reveals that Charlie has won the entire factory.

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15. Love in the Time of Cholera // Gabriel García Márquez

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) follows Florentino and Fermina, a pair of young lovers who live in an unnamed Caribbean port city. Because Fermina’s father disapproves of their relationship, he moves with his daughter to another city. Although the lovers write letters to each other, Fermina decides to marry another man, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. More than 50 years later, Urbino dies and Florentino proclaims that his love for Fermina had never ended.

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16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings // Maya Angelou

The cover of 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'
Amazon

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, has become a classic since it was first published in 1969. Angelou brings readers from her childhood in Arkansas and Missouri to her adulthood in California, sharing her traumatic experiences of abandonment, rape, and racism. She also shares her discovery and love of William Shakespeare’s works, revealing the transformative and healing power of books.

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17. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance // Robert Pirsig

Beloved by millions of readers since its publication in 1974, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is part road trip story and part philosophical text. As a man narrates his motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son from Minnesota to California, he also discusses philosophical ideas about how we live and how we can balance romanticism and rationalism.

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18. Frankenstein // Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was only 20 years old in 1818 when Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published (anonymously). The Gothic novel describes how scientist Victor Frankenstein brings a monster to life, and the aftermath of his decision to interfere with nature. The book has become a classic thanks to its innovative fusion of horror, science fiction, and Romanticism. Some consider it the first science fiction story ever written.

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19. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe // C.S. Lewis

The cover of 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe'
Amazon

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the first of seven books in C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. Published in 1950, the fantasy novel follows the four Pevensie siblings, who, during World War II in England, discover a portal to a magical land called Narnia. There they encounter talking animals, a perpetual winter, and an evil White Witch.

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20. The Old Man and the Sea // Ernest Hemingway

Since 1952, The Old Man and the Sea has captivated readers with its story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. After a long tussle with a huge marlin, Santiago finally kills the fish. Unfortunately, sharks devour most of the marlin’s carcass by the time Santiago gets home. The classic tale makes readers think about pain, suffering, empathy, futility, and growing old.

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21. The Westing Game // Ellen Raskin

The cover of 'The Westing Game'
Amazon

Readers of all ages love The Westing Game (1978) for its quirky characters, clever wordplay, and enthralling mystery. After multimillionaire Sam Westing dies, his will stipulates that his fortune will go to the person who figures out who killed him. An eclectic group of 16 characters, who are all residents of an apartment building on Lake Michigan, decipher clues to unravel the mystery.

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22. The Happiness Project // Gretchen Rubin

Published in 2009, The Happiness Project is a self-help book that takes readers through a year in the life of author Gretchen Rubin and her experiment to become a happier person. Each month, she makes tiny tweaks in her daily habits, focusing on everything from how to boost her energy to how to make more time for friends. Besides sharing her own experiences, Rubin also cites plenty of scientific studies on happiness and quotes writers and scholars who have written on the topic.

Buy it on Amazon.

23. Little Men // Louisa May Alcott

The cover of 'Little Men'
Amazon

Little Women was so successful that Louisa May Alcott wrote a sequel—Little Men (1871) picks up the March family saga with Jo, who is now married to Professor Friedrich Bhaer. While raising their two sons, Jo and her husband run Plumfield, a boarding school for boys. Fans of Little Women will be happy to know that characters from the novel (including Teddy and Amy) appear in the sequel.

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24. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying // The Dalai Lama

Bibliophiles will love Sleeping, Dreaming, And Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness (1997). The Dalai Lama engages in a fascinating conversation with Western scientists about neuroscience, psychology, and consciousness. The scientists and His Holiness discuss everything from lucid dreaming and near-death experiences to meditation and Buddhist philosophy.

Buy it on Amazon.

25. The Devil Finds Work // James Baldwin

James Baldwin is mostly remembered for his essays and novels, but he also applied his talent for keen social criticism to film. In The Devil Finds Work (1976), Baldwin shares his views on the role of race in popular films such as The Exorcist (1973) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He eloquently discusses everything from racial subtext and the idea of movies as an escape to the larger impact that films have on society.

Buy it on Amazon.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017.

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