Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch


That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life. I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading is author Nina Sankovitch’s experiment to come to terms with her grief by reading one book a day for a year. For the past couple of years she’s been doing anything and everything she can to avoid thinking about losing her older sister to cancer: throwing herself into volunteer work at her children’s school, helping out with family and friends, focusing on everyone’s problems but her own. Finally she feels she is ready to face her feelings about her sister’s death and decides to do this through reading. One of the ways her and her sister bonded was through books. So reading a book a day is one of the best ways she can think of to begin healing. She’ll only select novels that she would have shared with her sister. Ones they would have had fun discussing, arguing over or maybe even agreeing over. By intertwining the lessons she learns from these books with memories of her sister and their past she believes she will be able to move on. 

I had my misgivings about reading this book. I knew it was bound to be a story about loss because of her play on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.  I rarely research the books I read, focusing mainly on whether I find the titles interesting or not and this book fit the bill. I found the idea of Tolstoy and a purple chair very intriguing. I, myself, would love to sit in an oversized, stately purple chair curled up with a good classic. So this idea won out over my aversion to the feely-feely aspect I knew the book would inevitably have.

People often talk about the importance of living in the here and now, and express envy at how children enjoy their moments of pleasure without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Fine, agreed. But it is the experience — a life lived — that allows us to recall moments of happiness and feel happy again.

At the beginning I found a kindred spirit in Sankovitch. Reading a book a day is an amazing goal that I wish I had the time to attempt! I was curious how she was going to accomplish this. Even without working I’d find it hard to complete most of the books I read in a day, but she had that figured out. She’d only read books an inch or less in width. She also had other rules for herself: she’d only read titles she’d never read before and only one selection per author. Sankovitch notes, “My book reading would be a discipline. I knew there would be pleasure in my reading, but I needed to hold myself to a schedule as well.”

Reading rules and schedules? “This woman is me!” I thought. She even starts her year of reading off with one of my all time favorite books: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. She then goes on to talk about another favorite, Winter’s Tale, and chooses works by Paul Auster and Jose Saramago… Our tastes were one as well. I was very excited to continue reading the book.

But things didn’t stay exciting for long. Although peppered with a ton of great literary quotes, the story itself focused on the grief aspect much more than the reading component. Evidently she wrote a blog at the time with a daily review for each book, which would probably be more up my alley. And it’s not to say I found the parts about her sister totally boring. At least not at first. But by 1/3 of the way through the author had exhausted all she had to say on the subject and the book became very, very repetitive. Many parts had nothing to do with her sister and I didn’t quite catch on why sections were in the book at all, like the pages upon pages of describing her christmas decorations and traditions. Or a rundown of the loves of her life, starting in her summer camp years. Eventually she would try to bring back her rambling to the subject at hand, but the connections were pretty weak. Even though it was a fairly short book I was ready for it to be over almost as soon as it began.

While memory cannot take sorrow away or bring back the dead, remembering ensures that we always have the past with us, the bad moments but also the very, very good moments of laughter shared and meals eaten together and books discussed.


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