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Can it really be -- something new from Tolstoy? Perhaps a forgotten, 1,200-page canvass of history found propping up a broken bedstead at the great man's dacha? Is the mystic count of Russian literature about to have a go -- à la Louisa May Alcott -- at the late-20th century bestseller lists, thanks to a misplaced manuscript? Not quite. Tolstoy's "new" book, A Calendar of Wisdom, has gone though the printing presses in Cyrillic several times, but has just now been translated into English by Peter Sekirin.
Sad to say, Tolstoy will not be going head-to-head in bookstores this fall with Underworld and Mason & Dixon. In fact, he'll be far from the fiction section; he'll keep company instead with the Life's Little Treasure Books near the cash register. A Calendar of Wisdom is a sort of commonplace book with added commentary, a collection of quotations culled from world literature and grouped thematically for each day of the year. It is, in Tolstoy's words, "an accumulation of the cultural heritage of our ancestors, the best thinkers in the world." Jack Handy, take a hike; these are really deep thoughts. Call it "Cabbage Soup for the Soul."
This book is, by design, popular reading from a great master; it was made, in his words, "to present for a wide reading audience an easily accessible, everyday circle of reading which will arouse their best thoughts and feelings." It is touching to think of this great fiction maker so consumed by the search for the simple, communicable truth that he's thrown away all of his trusty tools: out with character, away with plot. This book is all theme, all the time. And, as a book of daily inspiration, it is probably the best of the lot. Certainly it presents a tougher, flintier view of the human condition than the current "Chicken Soup" bestsellers, a series that has had its schmaltz inadequately skimmed. And whose life wouldn't be bettered by a daily nibble of Shakespeare, Lao Tsu, Ruskin, the Talmud, the Dhammapada, Socrates, Jefferson and a host of small and tall 18th and 19th century thinkers?
Tolstoy's sentiments are truly affecting, simple but not easy prescriptions for daily living. If you must have an owner's manual for life, by all means try this one first. But keep in mind that it was not enough for the count himself, who died -- barely two years after the publication of the last edition of the calendar -- at a lonely train station as he attempted to flee the bonds of his gentrified life. Life serves up far more measures of grief than comfort food, in Tolstoy's vision. Think of this calendar as Tolstoy's spiritual Rolodex; whether such a thing puts you in touch with the kind of truth you can live with is yours to decide. -- Salon