How To Start: Begin, if you like, by reading about how much someone else enjoyed reading War & Peace. For me it was Lucy. She wrote a blog post entitled: "Why Read War & Peace? The Reasons Why I Love Tolstoy's Masterpiece."
Five Favourite Passages: "Rostov, standing in the foremost ranks of Kitizov's army, which the Tsar approached first of all, was possessed by the feeling, common to every man in the army - a feeling of self-oblivion, of proud consciousness of their might and passionate devotion to the man who was the centre of that solemn ceremony.
"He felt that at one word from that man all that vast mass (and he, an insignificant atom bound up with it) would rush through fire and water, to crime, to death, or to the gradest heroism, and so he could not but thrill and tremble at the sight of the man who was the embodiment of that word." (p 271)
"Life meanwhile, the actual life of men with their real interests of health and sickness, labour and rest, with their interests of thought, science, poetry, music, love, affection, hatred, passion, went its way, as always, independently, apart from the political amity or enmity of Napoleon Bonaparte, and apart from all possible reforms." (p 470)
"He prayed with that feeling of passion and compunction with which men pray in moments of intense emotion die to trivial causes." (p 567)
"When a man sees an animal dying, horror comes over him. What he is himself - his essence, visibly before his eyes, perishes - ceases to exist. But when the dying creature is a man and a man dearly loved, then, besides the horror at the extinction of life, what is felt is a rending of the soul, a spiritual wound, which, like a physical wound, is sometimes mortal, sometimes healed, but always aches and shrinks from contact with the outer world, that sets it smarting.
"(...) Crushed in spirit, they closed their eyes under the menacing cloud of death that hovered about them, and dared not look life in the face. Carefully they guarded their open wounds from every rough and painful touch. Everything - the carriage driving along the street, the summons to dinner, the maid asking which dress to get out; worse still - words of faint, feigned sympathy - set the wound smarting, seemed an insult to it, and jarred on that needful silence in which both were trying to listen to the stern, terrible litany that had not yet died away in their ears, and to gaze into the mysterious, endless vistas that seemed for a moment to have been unveiled before them." (p 1224)
"The countess was by now over sixty. Her hair was completely grey, and she wore a cap that surrounded her whole face with a frill. Her face was wrinkled, her upper lip had sunk, and her eyes were dim.
"After the deaths of her son and her husband that had followed so quickly on one another, she had felt herself a creature accidentally forgotten in this world, with no object and no interest in life. She ate and drank, slept and lay awake, but she did not live. Life gave her no impressions. She wanted nothing from life but peace, and that peace she could find only in death. But until death came to her she had to go on living - that is, using her vital forces. There was in the highest degree noticeable in her what may be observed in very small children and in very old people. No external aim could be seen in her existence; all that could be seen was the need to exercise her various capacities and propensities. She had to eat, to sleep, to think, to talk, to weep, to work, to get angry, and so on, simply because she had a stomach, a brain, muscles, nerves, and spleen. (...)
"(...) Only rarely a mournful half-smile passed between Nikolay, Pierre, Natasha, and Countess Marya that betrayed their comprehension of her condition.
"But these glances said something else besides. They said that she had done her work in life already, that she was not all here in what was seen in her now, that they would all be the same, and that they were glad to give way to her, to restrain themselves for the sake of this poor creature, once so dear, once so full of life as they. Memento mori, said those glances.
"Only quite heartless and stupid people and little children failed to understand this, and held themselves aloof from her." (p 1325-7)
Tangential: The translation matters! David Remnik wrote a fascinating article for the New Yorker entitled, "The Translation Wars."