Russian author Leo Tolstoy made connections through his writings… connections across classes, across cultures, and across centuries. Almost 100 years after his death, more than a hundred people crowded a library meeting room in Muncie, Indiana, this week… to talk about Tolstoy's works, history, and legacy. As Marcus Jackman reports, it's all part of a national literary program called The Big Read.
The Big Read is designed to encourage reading, but also to draw communities together, by having everyone read the same book at the same time and then discuss it together. The National Endowment for the Arts, concerned about the decline of reading in the United States, launched the program in 2006 in 10 communities. Just two years later, more than 125 cities and towns take part.
Public libraries in each community select the books for their program. In previous years, participants have read 12 titles, including The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and To Kill a Mockingbird. This year, Muncie, Indiana's libraries chose Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
The highlight of the month-long program was a discussion about the book led by Vladimir Tolstoy, the author's great-great-grandson.
Speaking through an interpreter, Tolstoy said he was excited to be invited to be part of the program because Ivan Ilyich was the first Big Read book by a non-American author. "But also I view the Big Read as a very important program," he said, admitting, "I wish we had one like it in Russia because, especially in the younger generations, the reading level is going down."
Tolstoy told the crowd Ivan Ilyich touches on the basic human need to live life sincerely, authentically, without pretense... and that makes the novella accessible to anybody.
Kristin Schwartz was in the audience for the discussion. She hadn't read the book, but her Russian friend encouraged her to go. She said she was fascinated to learn about the influence Leo Tolstoy had around the world… and about the influences on him, including social Christianity and nonviolent resistance.
"I didn't realize how political and philosophical his writings were, but there is a lot of historical significance." Schwartz said she normally reads a lot of non-fiction, and picked up on a quote repeated during the discussion. "'Thoreau was the seed, Tolstoy was the tree, and Gandhi was the fruit.' I haven't read a lot of Tolstoy but I have read Thoreau, so I'm really excited to read more Tolstoy and see the connections there."
Responses like that are everything planners were hoping for when they chose The Death of Ivan Ilyich for Muncie's Big Read, according to Donna Browne, who works for Muncie Public Library. "We've been enormously pleased. Truly we didn't know what to expect. We had high hopes and fortunately they've all been fulfilled for adults and kids. Today, as you can see, we had a standing room only of mostly adults. We're thrilled with that sort of response. You can see people lining up for autographs like they're rock stars! We didn't expect that at all."
Vladimir Tolstoy isn't just the author's great-great-grandson. He's also the director of the Leo Tolstoy Estate Museum at the family estate at Yasnaya Polyana, southwest of Moscow. He encourages readers to visit the museum, explaining that nothing can replace studying Tolstoy's writings at the author's own home, because his work can't be separated from the land or culture it was written in. "I also hope that those readers who open Tolstoy for the first time, reading Death of Ivan, won't stop at that, but will continue reading and learn from other writings the range Tolstoy had, and variety of themes in his writings."
Those writings have touched people around the world, according to Galina Alexeeva, head of academic research at Tolstoy's Yasnaya Polyana Estate Museum. She says it's not surprising that Americans especially might feel a deep connection with him.
"I believe that if Leo Tolstoy were alive, he would be very happy to know that in America they still read his works," Alexeeva says, "because for Tolstoy, America was the most sympathetic country, and he loved this country, and he received 2500 letters from America. And there were close ties between Tolstoy and many American writers and public figures in his life time. So it's very nice that the tradition continues."
What was surprising to the Russian visitors, though, was the serious interest with which Americans are reading Ivan Ilyich. Communities in Illinois and Pennsylvania also read the novella. Tolstoy says they have been very impressed with the profound questions they've been asked... particularly by young people. "Those questions were very deep and precise, and to a detail. They were not just something you'd ask generally. But they were looking for the answers and waiting for the answers and trying to find them. They were very sincere," he says.
And such sincerity would surely have pleased his great-great-grandfather, too.