In a column several years ago (October 23, 2009, “A Year of Living, Literally”), I wrote about Nina Sankovitch, the blogger/writer/reader who made a vow in 2008 to read one book every day for 365 days.
I wrote that I found Sankovitch a wee bit crazy and I also confessed that I was extremely jealous of all the ‘time’ she apparently had on her hands to read all day long.
I gave her credit, however, for true commitment when I discovered that her quest was born of an emotional need to work through the grief of a sister lost to cancer and to heal during a year of reading. I also learned that she had four children (all boys, ages 7 through 15) and during that “magical” year she still managed to be a mother, a wife, a blogger and a friend.
When I wrote my column, Sankovitch’s journey was nearing its end. A few days later and at the end of that year she had read 365 books - one every single day.
I’ve been told many times over the past thirty years that the loss of a child is the cruelest loss. I know that loss and so does my husband. I am convinced, however, that no death is crueler than another. Losing a child, losing a parent, a wife, a husband, a brother, a sister or a beloved member of any family when it seems unfair is still that. Unfair and profoundly difficult. Death leaves entire families hurting.
This is the devastating loss and bewildering pain that Sankovitch experienced when her eldest sister, Anne-Marie, passed away from bile-duct cancer in May 2005. “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading” (2011) is Nina Sankovitch’s account of her year of working through her grief by reading those 365 books. It is a testament to sisterly love. It is a proof of an amazing commitment that Sankovitch declared for herself. It is also a wonderfully woven narration of the books she read and how they healed her.
Three years after her sister died, Sankovitch was still bewildered and angry about the death. Life seemed unfair. When she and her husband left for a weekend of rest and relaxation in the summer of 2008, Sankovitch spent one lovely day reading while her husband took a windsurfing workshop. He arrived back much later than they had expected. Nina was amazed that in a relaxed, unhurried and uninterrupted state she finished all four-hundred pages of “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. It was that next day that she told her husband of her intent to read a book a day for a year.
Understandably, her husband was skeptical and so were her parents and most of her friends. The rules were that each book must be one she had never read before and an author could not be represented more than once in the year. The project also included posting a review of one book each day online.
Nina visited her library often to read or choose more books. Each time she took home an armload of books, most were less than 400 pages long. The list (it is included at the end of the book and online) is impressive. Most were written by well-known authors and many were lesser-known works.
In “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair”, Nina describes the depth of her relationship with her sister and how much Anne Marie would have liked each book. Anne Marie was wise and loving, older and aggravating. Throughout the book, Sankovitch admits that as a child she at times disliked, feared, respected and revered Anne Marie. As an adult she mainly adored her.
Some of the most intriguing elements of the book are of the Sankovitch family’s history. Memories of family trips, recollections of her parents’ former lives as Polish and Belarus immigrants, and stories of sisterly squabbles and angst are sprinkled throughout. So are poignant memories of sisterly-love, parental wisdom and incredible loss.
Every chapter of “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” was compelling and enlightening to me and I found myself sometimes chuckling, sometimes overwhelmed with understanding. Sankovitch, an attorney, was raising her children and not working when she made the decision to read for a year. She readily admits that she could not have done both. As it was, she cut corners at home, assigning chores to her sons for the first time. Family time, however, was sacrosanct and Sankovitch spent her time once school was out through the bedtime hour attending to her family. It was often only after 9 pm that she sunk into her purple chair in a corner of her study to read under a good light.
An understanding and supportive husband was, of course, a huge piece of the success of the year of reading. Nina would carve out time to drop her husband, Jack, off at the train station near their Connecticut home for his trip to the city each day and she would sometimes race to the station to pick him up before dinner. Yet, night after night he helped out with homework and smiled in disbelief that his wife was working her way through her goal.
On the cover of the book, author Thrity Umrigar praises “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” and declares that the memoir “reminds us of the most primal function of literature – to heal, to nurture, and to connect us to our truest selves.” Sankovitch healed and her book and her work of literature nurtured me. I have no doubt that in sharing her journey, many of its readers will connect to their truest selves.
If you would like to reserve this book, or its large print version, please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-799-0200.