Like everyone else I read Leo Tolstoy’s little book The Death of Ivan Ilyich in my college Literature class. I enjoyed it, but was far more impressed by that other Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky. Recently, however, I dipped back into Tolstoy and was pleasantly surprised. I read his excellent little book of short stories called What Men Live by and Other Tales (this is just one of many titles available in public domain over at Librivox).
What Men Live By is made up of four short stories written in the aftermath of Tolstoy’s conversion from the self-absorbed life of his aristocratic youth to the radical Christianity which would shape his later life. The book was published in 1885 and contains some of his most famous short stories including the title work “What Men Live By” and the acclaimed story “How Much Land Does a Man Need” James Joyce once claimed that “How Much Land Does a Man Need” was: “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows”. Each story takes the form of a parable or a fable by using a simple setting and story to communicate moral and religious truth. All four stories were well written and engaging and all were short enough to be read in a single sitting (which is, of course, the proper way to enjoy any short story). I was most impressed by “How Much Land Does a Man Need” and I was least impressed by “The Coffee House of Surat” (which argues for a sort of religious relativism). This little volume has definitely whet my appetite to read more Tolstoy and I found these short stories (with the possible exception of “The Coffee House of Surat”) to be both delightful and profound. I look forward to reading them to my kids and re-reading them as an adult.