By Leo Tolstoy
My mother named me after Tolstoy—in Ukraine he's called Lev Tolstoi—so I knew that eventually I'd have to read his work. I discovered this story about Ivan Ilyich, a midlevel Russian bureaucrat, when I was 16. It's about his inability to relate to his own family, anyone at work, or even himself. It's such an intelligent and compassionate exploration of a man's life. In middle age, Ilyich becomes physically ill and his body starts to deteriorate. What I love is that the stages of his death are a life in themselves. In recognizing death, in fact, Ilyich discovers a truth about life. Having been utterly disconnected from people, he finds a closeness with a peasant who sits with him unfailingly through his last nights. The comfort and understanding he finds in their simple exchanges—that was eye-opening. You come away from this story with an appreciation for how precious individual moments can be.