Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, by Nina Sankovitch
Title: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
Author: Nina Sankovitch
Originally Published: 2011
Format I Read: Paperback
Publisher: Harper Perennial
I received this book for free from the publisher. All content and opinions are my own.
I was anxious to read this book. I mean, aren’t you? Nina Sankovitch read a book a day for a year. And she reviewed every book she read at her website Read All Day. The marketing for this book made it sound, to me at least, like this was stunt fiction a la The Happiness Project and The Year of Living Biblically. But, it isn’t. This is much more memoir than stunt fiction.
Nina Sankovitch’s oldest sister Anna-Marie died suddenly of bile duct cancer. And, in response, Nina overscheduled and overdid and over-performed in an effort to “live for two.” Three years later, she realized that she could not continue with her frenetic pace. So, she decided to have a year of reading. She set herself up with a little room, a bookshelf, and a rather repulsively described cat-pee stained purple chair, and she did it. She read a book a day for a year. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair takes her experiences from the year of reading and wraps them around her memories of her sister and her struggles with moving forward after her death.
Throughout most of the book, I was irritated that there wasn’t more information about the stunt aspect of all of this. Where was the day by day account of the books? I wanted chronological lists and book selection dilemmas and the days she “cheated” a bit and read a graphic novel. I expected stunt fiction. But none of that is here. What is in the book is a rather beautiful memoir written around the love of books. Sankovitch draws lessons from the books she read during her year of reading about grieving and gratitude and living.
Here are a few of my favorite bookish quotes:
[W]ords are witness to life: they record what has happened, and they make it all real. Words create the stories that become history and become unforgettable. Even fiction portrays truth: good fiction is truth. (73)
People share books they love. They want to spread to friends and family the goodness that they felt when reading the book or the ideas they found in the pages. In sharing a loved book, a reader is trying to share the same excitement, pleasure, chills, and thrills of reading that they themselves experienced. Why else share? Sharing a love of books and of one particular book is a good thing. But it is also a tricky maneuver, for both sides. The giver of the book is not exactly ripping open her soul for a free look, but when she hands over the book with the comment that it is one of her favorites, such an admission is very close to the baring of the soul. We are what we love to read, and when we admit to loving a book, we admit that the book represents some aspect of ourselves truly . . . .
On the other side of the offered book is the taker. If she is at all a sensitive being, she knows that the soul of the offering friend has been laid wide open and that she, the taker, had better not spit on her friend’s soul. (101)
Books allow experiences to be relived, and allow lessons to be learned. . . . And now I understood why it was important to read these books. Because being witness to all types of human experience is important to understanding the world, but also to understanding myself. To define what is important to me, and who is important, and why. (137-138).
In the end, this book inspired me in three ways. One, to be grateful for the present in the context of the past and the future. It is memories of things that makes life so rich. Two, to read more deliberately. Or, more specifically, to read books more closely, applying the lessons to my own life, so I can learn lessons that I might not otherwise be exposed to. Three, to read more widely. Sankovitch’s selection during her read of reading was breathtaking. I need to infuse some new blood into my usual selection.
Read this book for what it is: a lovely memoir told in the context of great books. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, by Nina Sankovitch [rating:4]
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