“Works which made an impression”: Leo Tolstoy’s favourite books from each stage of his life

Tolstoy, 1895. Published by Cassell and Co, 
NY, 1911.

In 1891, a Petersburg publisher (who was undergoing the impressive feat of asking 2,000 influential luminaries for their favourite books) contacted Leo Tolstoy to ask about the books that had
influenced him.

Somewhat characteristically considering his love for lists, Tolstoy grouped his recommendations into the five stages of his life that he had covered so far, up to the age of 63. For each stage, books were also categorised as “great”, “v. great”, and “enormous”.

The result is the following, as included in R.F. Christian’s wonderful collection of Tolstoy’s Letters: Volume II (he has also published Tolstoy’s diaries in two volumes).

The letter opens with a disclaimer – “I am sending the list I began, but didn’t finish, for your consideration, but not for publication, since it is still far from complete” – and the heading, “WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION”.

Childhood to the age of 14 or so

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman
Pushkin’s poems: Napoleon

“V. great”:
The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky

The story of Joseph from the Bible
Russian byliny folk tales: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich

Age 14 to 20

Tales of Good and Evil by Nikolai Gogol: Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect
The Conquest of Mexico by William Prescott

“V. great”:
A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne
Nouvelle Héloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Die Räuber by Friedrich Schiller
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev
Polinka Sachs by Aleksandr Druzhinin
The Hapless Anton by Dmitry Grigorovich
A Hero for our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount
Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Viy” from “The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol”
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Age 20 to 35


Poems by F.T. Tyutchev
Poems by Koltsov
The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer (read in Russian)
Poems Afanasy Fet
Phaedo and Symposium by Plato (read by Tolstoy in Cousin’s translation)
“V. great”:

Hermann and Dorothea by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo


Age 35 to 50

Novels of Mrs. [Henry] Wood
Novels of George Eliot
Novels of Anthony Trollope

“V. great”:
The Odyssey and The Iliad (in Greek)
The byliny
Xenophon’s Anabasis

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Age 50 to 63

Discourse on religious subject by Theodore Parker
[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons
“The Essence of Christianity” by Ludwig Feuerbach
“V. great”:Book of Genesis (in Hebrew)
Progress and Poverty by Henry George
Confucius and Mencius

All the Gospels in Greek
Pensées by Blaise Pascal
“Lalita Vistara” by Rajendralala Mitra
Lao-Tzu [Tolstoy read the French translation of S. Julien]
If you enjoyed a first glance at Tolstoy’s skill for lists, you might also appreciate his Calendar of Wisdom, or his collection of quotations that he believed to be his most important contribution to humanity. There are also his “Rules of life”, including “Visit a brothel only twice a month”.

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