I'm not a big classics reader. I look for books that provide great stories and characters--that provide entertainment, not just material for study. I'm pleased to report that War and Peace works on all fronts, that it is honestly a great read. It's a long book but absolutely readable and worth the effort.
As most potential readers probably know, the book deals with several Russian families from the years 1805-1812 (particularly that last one, when Napoleon invaded Russia). Really, it seems to deal with nearly every aspect of life at the time--there are battles, of course, but also plenty of daily life, parties, hunting, courting and so on. Some readers argue that there's too much here, but I think it's all enjoyable and useful in some way provided you're comfortable with long books. The time devoted to character development, scene-setting and so forth definitely pays off, and the chapters themselves are quite short, so something new is always happening.
Really, this book deserves its superlatives, and there's not much more I can say that hasn't already been said. I will add that this book taught me a lot about war; most novels gloss over the confusion of battle, for instance, but it's clear that Tolstoy learned a lot from his war experience, and probably does a better job writing about it than any other novelist I've read. This book will leave you understanding not just how war worked in the 19th century, but how it works in general.
On a related point, many of Tolstoy's insights into human nature are just astounding. This is someone who really understands how people operate. I can't even count how many times I reacted to some statement with, "hey, that's so true! Why have I never read that in a book before?" High praise indeed.
I will note, though, that in the second half, Tolstoy does include several essays on "The Inevitability of History" and takes time away from the narrative to discuss his philosophical views. Usually they last no more than a few pages, and as they're set off in separate chapters, they can be skipped entirely if the reader so chooses. A considerable amount of time is also spent with minor, unnamed characters, when Tolstoy looks at the situation of the army, or in Moscow, or what have you, and no main characters happen to be there. These sections are well-done, but it does mean that especially later on, the narrative spends quite a bit of time away from any main characters. Whether these aspects of the book thrill or annoy you will depend on what kind of reader you are.
On Dunnigan's Translation:
This is the only translation of War and Peace that I've read, but I did look at several before deciding which one to read--when the book is this long, which translation you read is important! I highly recommend this one, particularly to American readers who don't speak French, and people who are reading it for non-academic purposes, for the following reasons:
1. There is quite a bit of French in Tolstoy's original. Here it's almost all translated, with only a few words and phrases left in French for flavor or because the language being spoken is important. Other versions leave it untranslated in the text and include footnotes, but when I sampled one I found it tiring. When an entire conversation is in French, Dunnigan simply tells us that it's in French.
2. The characters' names remain in Russian. One or two of the other translations Anglicize them, which seems silly to me. "Andrei," for instance, is not that difficult a name--no need to call him "Andrew."
3. Dunnigan renders peasant speech into standard (American) English. Tolstoy originally used local forms of speech which some British translators decided to translate as Cockney accents. Dunnigan's choice may have less flavor, but it doesn't call attention to itself or give a false flavor to the characters' speech.
4. No endnotes, and minimal footnotes. If you'd rather miss a few allusions than feel like you have to flip to the back of the book to look something up every couple of pages, this is a plus. If you want a more academic experience and background on the text, though, this may not be the edition for you.
Finally, for those who are thinking about reading War and Peace but a little intimidated--don't be! Yes, it's long, but it doesn't feel like it. The story is great, the characters incredibly lifelike, and the language not nearly as dense as many people expect from classics. This one is a classic for a reason.