Leo Tolstoy Creates a List of the 50+ Books That Influenced Him Most (1891)

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War and PeaceAnna KareninaThe Death of Ivan Ilyich — many of us have felt the influence, to the good or the ill of our own reading and writing, of Leo Tolstoy. But whose influence did Leo Tolstoy feel the most? As luck would have it, we can give you chapter and verse on this, since the novelist drew up just such a list in 1891, which would have put him at age 63. A Russian publisher had asked 2,000 professors, scholars, artists, and men of letters, public figures, and other luminaries to name the books important to them, and Tolstoy responded with this list divided into five ages of man, with their actual degree of influence (“enormous,” “v. great,” or merely “great”) noted. It comes as something of a rarity, up to now only available transcribed in a post at Northampton, Massachusetts’ Valley Advocate:

WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION

Childhood to the age of 14 or so

The story of Joseph from the Bible - Enormous

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman - Great

The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky - V. great

Russian byliny: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich. Folk Tales - Enormous

Puskin’s poems: Napoleon - Great

Age 14 to 20

Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount – Enormous

Sterne’s Sentimental Journey – V. great

Rousseau Confessions - Enormous

Emile - Enormous

Nouvelle Héloise - V. great

Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin - V. great

Schiller’s Die Räuber - V. great

Gogol’s Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect - Great

“Viy” [a story by Gogol] – Enormous

Dead Souls - V. great

Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches - V. great

Druzhinin’s Polinka Sachs - V. great

Grigorovich’s The Hapless Anton - V. great

Dickens’ David Copperfield - Enormous

Lermontov’s A Hero for our Time, Taman - V. great

Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico - Great

Age 20 to 35

Goethe. Hermann and Dorothea - V. great

Victor Hugo. Notre Dame de Paris - V. great

Tyutchev’s poems – Great

Koltsov’s poems – Great

The Odyssey and The Iliad (read in Russian) – Great

Fet’s poems – Great

Plato’s Phaedo and Symposium (in Cousin’s translation) – Great

Age 35 to 50

The Odyssey and The Iliad (in Greek) – V. great

The byliny - V. great

Victor Hugo. Les Misérables - Enormous

Xenophon’s Anabasis - V. great

Mrs. [Henry] Wood. Novels – Great

George Eliot. Novels – Great

Trollope, Novels – Great

Age 50 to 63

All the Gospels in Greek – Enormous

Book of Genesis (in Hebrew) – V. great

Henry George. Progress and Poverty - V. great

[Theodore] Parker. Discourse on religious subject – Great

[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons – Great

Feuerbach (I forget the title; work on Christianity) [“The Essence of Christianity”] – Great

Pascal’s Pensées - Enormous

Epictetus – Enormous

Confucius and Mencius – V. great

On the Buddha. Well-known Frenchman (I forget) [“Lalita Vistara”] – Enormous

Lao-Tzu. Julien [S. Julien, French translator] – Enormous

The writer at the Valley Advocate, a Tolstoy aficionado, came across the list by sheer happenstance. “On my way to work, I found something just for me in a box of cast-off books on a sidewalk,” they write: a biography of Tolstoy with “something cooler inside”: a “yellowed and fragile New York Times Book Review clipping” from 1978 containing the full list as Tolstoy wrote it. “Gold,” in other words, “for this wannabe Tolstoy scholar.” If you, too count yourself among the ranks of wannabe Tolstoy scholars — or indeed credentialed Tolstoy scholars — you’ll no doubt find more than a few intriguing selections here. And if you simply admire Tolstoy, well, get to reading: learn not how to make the same things your idols made, I often say, but to think how they thought. Not that any of us have time to write War and Peace these days anyway, though with luck, we do still have time to read it — along with The Thousand and One Nights, David Copperfield, The Odyssey, and so on. Many of these works you can find in our collection, 600 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

Related Content:

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.



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  1. Susan Scott says . . . | July 17, 2014 / 1:57 pm

    Thank you!

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