By Kate Lemery
Recently, my son Marc decided he was going to earn a world record.
“I’m going to be the first six-year-old to read War and Peace,” he announced over dinner, continuing to ignore the steaming broccoli in front of him.
My husband and I exchanged a look. We were only somewhat surprised by this declaration. He’d become obsessed with Guinness World Records 2017, which he’d purchased at a school book fair. It seemed only a matter of time before he made a personal attempt.
But we had no idea how he chose this particular subject for distinction. My husband and I had never mentioned Leo Tolstoy or his books to our kids. Then my husband whispered, “The Peanuts Movie.”
Ah, yes. In the recent film based on the classic newspaper cartoon, Peppermint Patty tells Charlie Brown that War and Peace is “the biggest, most greatest novel ever written” (it was reputedly Charles Schultz’s favorite as well). One scene shows the novel bathed in heavenly light on a library shelf as Charlie Brown selects it for a book report. Other members of the Peanuts gang look on in awe. It must have made an impression on Marc.
Marc is our middle child, and he loves reading. But the most recent chapter books he’d chosen for himself were of the Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid variety. War and Peace would be the first picture-less book he’d ever attempted. I had some concerns. Was he, at age six, capable of finishing the entire book? Could he understand the adult themes, such as death and marital doubt? Did I want him to? Marc has always exhibited boundless enthusiasm toward creative projects, but perhaps this goal was beyond him.
We had no idea if a world record for book reading even existed, but we wanted to see where this might lead. We happened to own a copy of the Russian classic, my maiden name and junior year phone number scrawled on the first page. So, Marc got started after dinner. For that night and many successive ones, he sat on our family room sofa, staring hard at the prose. Every so often he’d turn the page and stare at the next one, and every so often he’d ask us for a translation of a French word he’d encountered.
We expected him to lose interest in this the project, but every day, over the course of two weeks, he kept turning pages. After he’d turned through the first fifty, we asked him what War and Peace was about. He gave a passable answer—“It’s about people and families talking about themselves and their lives.” He could list the main characters and their personality traits as well.
Marc’s older brother was impressed. James spun his wheels trying to think of a world record he could break, too. “No,” my husband and I said. “Your brother is going to try this first. It was his idea.” It felt good and right to focus solely on Marc for a change. As my middle child, he’s not often the focus of my attention. I want to help my kids discover their true selves, but often in the hurly-burly of everyday life and parenting three of them, fostering Marc’s individuality gets tabled. Supporting his world-record project served two goals in one endeavor.
Marc is sandwiched between a brother who has attended chess tournaments since kindergarten, and a sister with a penchant for adorning herself in eye-catching clothing. Like many middle children, he seeks distinction. He has little interest in chess, and won’t touch his sister’s costumes with a ten-foot pole. Marc has always been independent and imaginative. He is passionate about Pokémon and pancakes.
If birth order has anything to do with it, he just might have a decent chance of breaking a record. A pediatrician told me that middle children often show strong signs of determination, so I wasn’t surprised that successful middle children include Bill Gates, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and over half of all U.S. presidents. According to Katrin Schumann, co-author of The Secret Powers of Middle Children, middle children are often risk-takers, cool under pressure, and “more likely than their siblings to be successful and enjoy…flourishing careers.”
Middle children stereotypically feel more ignored than older or younger siblings, but Marc received a healthy dose of attention for this project. “I’m going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records,” he’d say to everyone he met, with the same certainty that he can state that Venusaur is a grass type Pokémon with a catch rate of 5.9%. I wanted to hug him tight for his confidence. And who among us doesn’t yearn to be known for something special, to be declared “officially amazing” (the Guinness World Record motto)?
Several weeks after Marc started War and Peace, when his determination gave no sign of waning, I looked into the particulars of obtaining a Guinness World Record. According to the website, Guinness receives over 1,000 applications a week. An application to break one of the over 40,000 existing records is free through the standard application process, which takes up to 12 weeks. The website provides an easy-to-use database that lists all current records, highlighting their most popular, such as:
*The fastest time pogo-sticking up the CN Tower
*The largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia
*The most snails attached to one’s face for ten seconds
Because no current record existed for the youngest person to read War and Peace, my son would be attempting a new record title. I signed up online and began the regular application process. It seemed like all he had to do was finish the book.
Alas, it turned out that world record achievement would elude Marc for now. After weeks of dedicated reading, in which he’d gotten nearly a third of the way through, he left our copy of War and Peace at school on a Friday. We didn’t even realize it until the end of a busy Saturday, filled with soccer games and birthday parties. He peeled back his covers after he climbed into bed, then frantically searched his room for the tome before remembering where it was.
Marc was devastated, certain the race was lost. Surely, other six-year-olds were right then surpassing him in their War and Peace progress. I could not convince him otherwise. He didn’t want to get another copy from the library. It had to be that one. And his six-year-old self-imposed deadline dictated that the book must be completed within a few weeks, before he turned seven, an age he imagined populated with thousands of kids who’d conquered the end. I hugged him as he pursed his lips and closed his eyes.
The next morning, Marc sat glumly at the kitchen table while I cooked and thought about another more important skill I want my kids to master early—resilience. By the time I’d set Marc’s breakfast in front of him, he’d brightened.
“Maybe I can break the record for pancake eating,” he said.
I set my laptop on the table. “We can look into that.”
Kate Lemery worked for the National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian Institution for fifteen years before becoming a stay-at-home mom in suburban Washington, D.C. She’s written articles about art, culture, and parenting, and is finishing her first novel.