My first exposure to Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, one of the greatest writers of all time, was in sixth grade in West Los Angeles. I remember the local librarian suggested I might like “
War and Peace
” by Leo Toy Store. I mean what precocious 12-year-old wouldn’t want to read a book by someone from a toy store? Of course, it turned out the book was significantly different in style and content than what I had anticipated. Still, once I began to figure out the complex Russian names, I fell in love with the exotic characters. I think it was my first real exposure to the complexity of human nature.
Eventually, I wrote an essay about Tolstoy for eighth-grade English. I got most of my information from our well-worn 1963 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, the paper-based Google of its time. I learned that Leo (by then, I felt like we were on a first name basis) initially achieved success in the writing world during his 20s when he published a trilogy of novels — “Childhood,” “Boyhood” and “Youth”
all which I eventually read but don’t recall anything about.
He is best known for “
War and Peace
,” which I’ve plowed through at least five times over the years, and “
which I never quite learned how to pronounce. His experience watching so many die in the Crimean War as well as his studies of Christian ethics led him to become an ardent pacifist and spiritual anarchist. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were profoundly impacted by Tolstoy’s writings.
“If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.”
This is from someone who was not only fluent in English, French and German, but could also read in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian, Turkish and Bulgarian, among other languages. His house library consisted of 23,000 books in 39 languages. By stark contrast, I can read in English and some HTML. My Kindle has 780 books on it. Still, I would wager I’ve read many more detective and science fiction series than Tolstoy. I’m pretty content at this point in my life, having come to the conclusion that perfection is highly overrated.
So many of Tolstoy’s words impacted me as a young man. Reading
“A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator the smaller the fraction”
caused me to seriously reflect on the importance of having humility. And his quote,
“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back
,” crystalized for me the danger of political hypocrisy.
Most Beautiful One and I embraced Tolstoy’s sentiment that
“Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.”
We participated in several protests against the Vietnam War and civil rights. While marching in a huge gathering to protest Richard Nixon, who was standing on a balcony at the Century City Hotel, we barely escaped injury as the crowds and police turned violent. We were so convinced that our efforts would contribute to a dramatically improved nation. Eventually, we realized that real and lasting reform would take persistent, one-on-one dialogue over a long period of time. As Tolstoy said,
“Just as one candle lights another and can light thousands of other candles, so one heart illuminates another heart and can illuminate thousands of other hearts.”
In the final analysis, even as isolated as we are today, I think we each need to reflect on Tolstoy’s admonishment
, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
So, let’s don our trusty masks, fire up our Zooms, and get to work!
Thanks for reading and be safe out there.
Next week: Herbie Hancock & the Coronavirus