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What Men Live By, by Leo Tolstoy, L&D Allen Press, 1951

Each time I am able to get my hands on an L&D Allen Press book, I become more and more impressed with their accomplishments. For nearly forty years, they published beautiful fine press books, all letterpress with hand made paper and hand bound.  Besides some stunning folio size works, their smaller size works leave little to be desired. For example, their edition of Leo Tolstoy’s What Men Live By is nearly perfect in execution.

Printed damp on hand-made Maidstone paper, the handset Romanee typeset and hand colored wood block illustrations by Mallette Dean provide perfect examples of how the old, traditional way of creating books far exceeds what modern technology accomplishes today.  Incredibly easy on the eyes, the physical parts of the book simply fade into the background, allowing the text, the illustrations and your imagination to take the forefront. In short, this is how it should be.

What Men Live By is a short story published by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) in 1855.  Simon is a poor Russian shoemaker, married to Matrena. “Work was cheap but bread was dear, and what he earned he spent for food.” Simon heads into town to try to collect over five rubles owed to him by various people so that he can buy sheepskin to have a winter coat that he can share with his wife. Nobody is able to pay him so he dejectedly starts to walk back home when, as he approaches a holy shrine, he runs across a naked man, poor of health. Simon initially tries to avoid him but his conscience gets the best of him and he helps him, ultimately taking him home. Simon’s wife is initially angry at him, but eventually warms to the stranger also, which causes the stranger to smile briefly. The stranger, named Michael, only tells Simon and Matrena that he is being punished by God.

Michael stays with Simon and Matrena and becomes and assistant to Simon, making shoes. One day, a rich nobleman comes in with special leather and gives strict instructions for a pair of boots, threatening Simon with arrest if he makes any mistakes. Michael, seemingly looking beyond the nobleman, briefly smiles again. Instead of making boots as demanded, Michael make a pair of soft slippers. As Simon notices what Michael has done and begins to get angry, a messenger comes in saying that the nobleman has died and that his widow would like funeral slippers made with the  leather, instead of boots. Simon is astounded.

A poor women comes in one day with two girls, one crippled, and asks for three shoes. Michael stares at the girls as Simon asks the woman about the girls and how the one was made lame. The woman explains they are not her biological children and that the mother of the girls, on her deathbed, accidentally crushed the leg of the crippled girl. The woman mentions she did not have the heart to send them to an orphanage, so instead she took them in as her own. Michael smiles when he hears this.

When the woman leaves, Michael, with a glow around him, tells Simon God has forgiven him and he is now going to leave. Simon realizes Michael is not an ordinary man, and asks Michael about the glow around him and the three times he smiled. Michael says:

Light shines from me because I have been punished, but now God has pardoned me.  And I smiled three times, because God sent me here to learn three truths, and I have learnt them.

Michael explains that he is an Angel, and God was punishing him for disobeying him when God had told him to bring a woman to her next life; she had pleaded with Michael to let her live to raise her children and Michael had let her live. God sent Michael back to earth, to take the woman’s soul and then stripped him of his wings, telling him he must find the answers to the following questions in order to be an angel again: What dwells in man?, What is not given to man?, and What do men live by?

Story spoiler follows, so do not read if you plan on reading the book!

Michael explains that each time he smiled, it was because he learned the answer to one of those questions. He learned ‘what dwells in man‘ early on when Simon and Matrena took him in. What dwells in man is love.  He learned ‘what is not given to man‘ when the rich nobleman ordered shoes for an event in the future, not realizing he would be dead by then. What is not given to man is to know their own needs. He learned ‘what men live by’ through the example set by the woman raising the two children whose mother had died. What men live by is the living God within them. Michael says:

I have learnt that all men are to live not by care of themselves, but by love….all men live not by the thought they spend on their own welfare, but because love exists in man…I understood that God does not wish men to live part, and consequently he does not reveal to them what each one needs for himself; but he wishes them to live united, and therefore reveals to each of them what is necessary for all. I have now understood that though it seems to men that they live by care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live. He who has love, is in God, and God is in him, for God is love.

Michael is raised back to heaven.

Leo Tolstoy is one the greatest novelists in history, with two books, War and Peace and Anna Karenina generally considered two of the greatest novels ever written. Both novels are certainly at the peak of realistic fiction. In the 1870’s he had a spiritual awakening, resulting in him becoming a fervent Christian anarchist. His views on non-violence were to have significant impact on twentieth century leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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What Men Live By, Allen Press, Slipcase Spine
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Book Spine
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Book Cover
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Title Page
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Opening
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Sample Page with Text and Illustration #1
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Sample Page with Text and Illustration #2
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Sample Page with Text and Illustration #3
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Sample Page with Text and Illustration #4
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Sample Page with Text and Illustration #5
What Men Live By, Allen Press, Colophon
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