When offered a review copy of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch I couldn’t say no. I figured a book by anyone who read a book a day for a year would be full of bookish goodness. It was. Sort of. I enjoyed the book, I read to the end after all, but it wasn’t as bookish as I expected. It was more grief memoir than year of reading fun. If you go into it knowing this, then you are much more likely to enjoy it more than I did.
When Sankovitch was 43 her 46-year-old sister, Anne-Marie, died of cancer. Grief stricken and filled with survivor’s guilt, Sankovitch spent the next three years trying to live for herself and her sister in an attempt to make up for her sister’s death. It made her and her family exhausted. Approaching her 46th birthday, Sankovitch decided she would read a book a day for an entire year in an attempt to overcome her grief, to slow down, and to honor the memory of her sister who loved reading and with whom she often talked books. She would read her first book on her birthday and the next day she would write a review about the book for a book website that she had started previously. The rules for her year were:
no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t reread any books I’d already read; I had to write about every book I read. I would read new books and new authors, and read old books by favorite writers. I wouldn’t read War and Peace, but I could read Tolstoy’s last noel, The Forged Coupon. The books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have, ones we would have talked about, argued over, and some we would have agreed upon.
The year gets off to a rocky start as she tries to find a workable schedule that allowed her to read and write and take care of her four boys and husband. But soon enough she settles into a rhythm that works for everyone.
Sankovitch writes extensively on her grief over her sister’s death, about her childhood, about her own children. She ruminates about loss and memory and reading and what it means to her and occasionally she writes about the books she is reading and what in them has struck a chord for her. She definitely knows what it is to be a reader and sometimes had me nodding my head in agreement like when she writes:
People share books they love. They want to spread to a friend and family member the goodness 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. …But it is also a tricky maneuver for both sides. …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.
How many of us have been on both sides when the book ended up not being liked? Uncomfortable!
Sankovitch’s year of reading allowed her the time and space to deal with her grief and figure out how to live with her loss. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair isn’t an especially philosophical or insightful book. It is, however, honest. And there is a list at the back of the book of the 365 books Sankovitch read during her year. But, as I said earlier, the book isn’t particularly about books. Approach it as a memoir by someone who likes to read and your expectations will not be disappointed.