Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading

  • Nina Sankovitch
  • Harper Collins
  • 222 pp.

Remembrance, life lessons and conversations with friends, all from a book a day.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

When her sister Anne-Marie died of cancer at the age of 46, Nina Sankovitch was grief stricken; three years on, she struggled with “the relentless question of why I deserved to live.” So starting on her own 46th birthday, she undertook the challenge of reading a book a day, reviewing each selection on her established book exchange Website, Her designated reading spot would be a comfy purple chair redolent with the family cat, Milo. She hoped that a year’s worth of books would lead the way back into her life.

Sankovitch runs an active household with four sons, a husband and occasionally a resident stepdaughter. To make the project work she needed discipline: one book per author; no re-reading a book already enjoyed; and selections from both new and established authors. Usually she would choose shorter works, making a few exceptions, as in the case of Watership Down, recommended by one of her sons. But if a book didn’t grab her after the first 10 pages, she quickly picked up another.

My concerns that this project might come off as compulsive and that reading a book about reading would prove dissatisfying were quickly dispelled three chapters into this wonderful book. The first selection on Sankovitch’s list was Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Upon finishing it she reflected on the survival of our inner selves and its dependence on memory. Books nurture remembrance, she says: “books past and present pushing me up and offering hope from what can be remembered. Offering warning of what should not be forgotten. Tamping back the blood from the harsh cuts of living.” In this way, books become less an escape for Sankovitch than a way to understand and experience life more fully. Reading for her is “the bones around which resilience is built.”

Her range is impressive ― Arthur Ransome, Junot Diaz, Leo Tolstoy, Anais Nin, Jim Harrison, Paula Fox. She has read about loss, love, war and kindness, and she discusses books not for their literary value so much as for their testaments to universal experience. “A book doesn’t have to be part of the canon of great literature to make a difference in the reader’s life,” she says. The books she has read shed light on her own family history, including her father’s horrific loss of three siblings in wartime Poland, as well on the joys and achievements she and her loved ones have experienced along the way. Her books are weapons against hopelessness. Her discussion of them is open-hearted, unsentimental and intelligent.

“Tragedy is conferred randomly and unfairly,” she writes at one point “any promise of easy times to come is a false one. But I know I can survive the hard time by taking the worst of what happens to me as a burden but not as a noose. Books mirrored life ― my life!”

Sankovitch is particularly eloquent on the subject of sharing and talking about books.  She articulates what writers and readers have always secretly known: that in talking about books we can talk about anything with anyone. “When we discuss what we are reading, what we are really discussing is our own lives, our take on everything from sorrow to fidelity to responsibility, from money to religion, from worrying to inebriation, from sex to laundry and back again. No topic is taboo, as long as we can tie it in to a book we’ve read.”

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a beautiful affirmation of life, including the life of the author’s beloved sister, Anne-Marie. It is also a tribute to the power and importance of books. Readers will be drawn to the directory in the back, which lists all the books she read in a year. Although this section might have been more logically alphabetized by author than by title, it’s clear that Nina Sankovitch’s year of magical reading has yielded a magical book. Readers will treasure it. In the author’s spirit, pass this one along.

Amanda Holmes Duffy teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College. She has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. “Russian Music Lessons,” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of The Northern Virginia Review.

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