In recent years, a few individuals have taken on large reading projects and then written books of their own about their literary odyssey. Reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, Adler’s Great Books, various millennium book lists: all have received such treatment. Still others have assigned themselves certain timed races based on a particular book, the best known of which is Julie Powell‘s decision to prepare all of the recipes found in Julia Child‘s first cookbook.
In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (ISBN 978-0-06-199984-0, $23.99), Nina Sankovitch undertakes such a scheme, but with a darker personal motive. When her older sister, her beloved Anne-Marie, dies at the age of 46, Sankovitch is left bereft and extremely depressed. She is particularly bothered, as are many who lose a loved one, by such questions as why her sister had died, why Anne-Marie had died instead of her, why she herself had deserved to live.
For three years, Sankovitch bore the pain and questions of her sister’s death. Then one day, while on a get-away weekend vacation to the beaches of Long Island, Sankovitch began reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She read through the afternoon and into the evening, and realized when she closed the covers of the book that she had read this classic in a single day. She decided then to try and read a book a day for a year, intuitively hoping that this reading would yield answers about her sister’s death and even the reason for her own existence. Of that evening, when her husband — he is surely to be admired for participating in her quest — asked her if she couldn’t read a book a week, she wrote:
“No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and pain.”
And so Sankovitch commenced her daily sprint, taking up classics like Forester’s The African Queen, Kipling’s Captains Courageous, and Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; newer works by authors like Wendell Berry, Jim Harrison, and Muriel Barbery; suspense and science fiction novels; biographies; young adult books. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair — the chair is a banged-up family treasure, stained and patched, which served as her reading headquarters — Sankovitch recounts in detail the pressure such reading put on her household chores and cooking, her duties to her husband and children, the difficulties brought by the exigencies of any modern daily life. Many evenings, she could barely keep her eyes open as she struggled to maintain her book-a-day agenda.
What is best in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, however, is not the author’s literary criticism, but the way in which she blends her accounts of her reading with the story of her family and with broader human concerns.
In a minor chapter titled “Sex By The Book,” for instance, she addresses her own sexual desires even in the face of watching over four children, shopping and cooking, and reading her daily text. Through books like The Delta of Venus and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she finds revelations that help her understand her own sexual desires and her long and continuous love for her husband, Jack, and of the world they have made together “where we are safe — or as safe as we can be.”
Sankovitch also takes us into her childhood, which differed from that of many of her contemporaries. Both her parents were immigrants who had suffered as children during World War II, and both brought to the United States the European love of custom and music now all but lost even in their native lands. Sankovitch describes her mother and father listening to classical music on Sundays and taking their own pleasures from literature. Both were professionals — her father was a surgeon, her mother a university teacher — who frequently invited friends, students, and other visitors into their home.
Throughout her writing Sankovitch also comes back time and again to her sister, the memories they shared, the books they enjoyed, her death. Though she realizes that “there is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love,” her year of reading does bring her a sort of peace regarding Anne-Marie. She tells us that “reading one book a day was my year in a sanitorium,” and the answer which she derives from that sanitarium is that “our only answer to sorrow is to live, to live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forward, with anticipation and excitement.” For Sankovitch, Cyril Connolly’s tag on the flyleaf — “Literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living” — takes on the import of a motto on a family crest. She reads herself back to health, finding in words and stories not only a respite from her hectic life, but an answer to that life.
One last lesson will strike to the heart of any reader who has suffered the death of a loved one. With the best of intentions, family members and friends will often tell the survivor that it is important to move on, to stay busy, to put the past away. There may be some truth to this advice, but in the pell-mell rush of the society in which we live, it is equally important to remember, as Sankovitch finally did, that to slow down, to contemplate, and to remember offer a reliable path to reconciliation and acceptance.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch. Harper, 2011. 256 pages.