Two short books every college student should read

Tolstoy’s novella asks a pressing question. Drummond’s book answers it. Friday, September 22, 2023. (Photo by Madison Wilcox)
Tolstoy’s novella asks a pressing question. Drummond’s book answers it. Friday, September 22, 2023. (Photo by Madison Wilcox)

Does life feel short to you yet? For most young people, it seems eternal. But, at around 20 years old, we’re already one-quarter of the way done. Life is long until it’s not. Death is just somewhere in the neighborhood until it rings your doorbell. But when it does, how will you answer it? 

Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” may help you answer this question before it’s your turn. This 53-page novella follows a man who faces the loss of something he never truly had: life. Ivan Ilyich lives with his eye set firmly on society’s expectations, dutifully climbing the 14-rung ladder of the Russian civil service, marrying an intelligent woman and simply attempting to live a decent and pleasant life. Outwardly, he has everything a high-class person could wish for. 

But, when death suddenly stares him in the face, Ivan realizes that everything he has accumulated isn’t as important as he believed. A horrible thought forms in his mind: Did his cookie-cutter, follow-the-recipe, pay-your-dues kind of life mean anything at all? Could he have done it all “right” and still got it all wrong?

 Follow Ivan as he learns the answer to these pressing questions. Prepare for light in the darkest of places. 

As a companion to the novella above, I recommend another, even shorter, book: “The Greatest Thing in the World,” written by a contemporary of Tolstoy, Henry Drummond. While the novella provokes a haunting question (What does it mean to do life right?) and offers glimpses of the answer, Drummond fleshes the answer out in 44 pages, breathing life into the oldest, and perhaps most important, word of the Christian faith: love. 

Isn’t it surprising how the brain turns off when it reaches that word on the other side of a colon? The word is faded at best, weak from overuse. But this is only because the embodiment of the word is so unusual. Love occurs more often on paper than in action. Like a muscle that has atrophied, the concept of love means little and does little for most. 

But Drummond catches a higher vision of that word in this little book. He shares it with the reader by walking one verse at a time through 1 Corinthians 13. I won’t try to summarize his argument; I simply encourage you to approach the book as if you’d never heard of love before. Chances are, you’ve never heard it described in quite the way he describes it. Let it convict you; I believe it will. 

“On the last analysis, then, love is life. … It is a thing that we are living now, not that we get when we die; that we shall have a poor chance of getting when we die unless we are living now. No worse fate can befall a man in this world than to live and grow old alone, unloving and unloved. To be lost is to live in an unregenerate condition, loveless and unloved; and to be saved is to love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth already in God. For God is love.” Henry Drummond. 

 Editor’s Note: If you are interested in a copy of either or both books, email me at

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