Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

reading365. That’s how many books Nina Sankovitch read in one year. That’s right. 365. A book a day. Sounds like some kind of crazy New Year’s Resolution, doesn’t it? And it was, sort of, although Nina’s year started in October, not January. Since we began a new year yesterday, we’ve probably all experienced that feeling of having reached a point of crisis in our lives. A point where we resolve to end one behavior and replace it with another. For Sankovitch, the crisis was the grief she’d been running away from for three years following the death of her sister, and the realization that she couldn’t run away from it anymore. Her solution? To sit down — in a purple, wingback chair — and read. A book a day for 365 days.

Full disclosure: I was a fan of Nina’s blog Read All Day long before I came around to reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. I’m a fan of Nina, actually. We both like endangered things: books, independent bookstores, libraries and, as I discovered on my last visit to her site, handwritten letters. What’s more, I’m convinced Nina’s just an all ’round lovely person. I make that judgement based solely on the fact that she responds promptly and thoughtfully to readers’ comments and emails, and I’m not just talking peremptory, courteous responses. No. We’re talking paragraphs of carefully considered, elegantly crafted feedback.

I’m also convinced she’s superwoman. Consider the facts. Here is a woman who raised four sons, maintained a healthy marriage and several healthy relationships, had a strong legal career before she set out on this project, put dinner on the table most nights, kept her house functionally clean, read a book a day AND wrote a review of that book on her site each day AND took the time to respond to needy commenters like me. And then she wrote a book about that year that’s overflowing with wisdom, humour, kindness and inspiration. She is the Deepak Chopra for busy moms every Western person everywhere who feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day. This is someone who needs to be a guest on Oprah.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand her methods, but I understand her motivations. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, Nina spends a good deal of time exploring the question of what motivates us as readers. Why do we read? Escape, she decides is definitely one reason. But another is to learn how to be human; to learn how to relate to other humans.

Often Nina relates the books she discussing back to memories of family, past lovers, life-lesson’s learned. Not surprising, her prose shines brightest at these times of storytelling. With two immigrant parents who lived through WWII Europe, Nina has plenty of astonishing stories to tell, and she does, generously, aware as she obviously is that stories, whether they feature fictional characters we’ll never meet or the lives of people closest to us, stories are what knit us together in the tapestry of life. Stories are how we come to understand one another.

Stories are also what help Nina heal, which is as good an endorsement for reading as any I’ve ever heard.

Nina sounds like an extraordinary reader, but I’m curious, could you read a book a day for a year? Have you? Would you? I honestly just don’t think I’m a fast enough reader. I’d love to try sometime, though!

Speaking of resolutions, what are yours this year? One of mine is to read a book a week all year, but I’m afraid even that will be too hard for me! Undoubtedly, It will depend on another one of my resolutions: to take the train to work more often. What about you?

  1. I love reading and am chuffed to complete a book a month. A book a day? No! I think it would destroy the pleasure of reading for me. As I often forget what I did the previous week I doubt I would remember the content of each book. My resolution is to continue to champion those endangered spieces; books, independant book shops, libraries and, yes indeed, the handwritten letter.

    • Erin said:

      Here, here! I agree — I’m not as fast a reader as Nina must be, so forcing myself to read a book a day would be stressful rather than pleasurable.

  2. How interesting that I should read this post while in the library! I’m here to get a book for a online literature course I’m taking. The last book assigned was”Black Boy” by Richard Wright. The question of why we read (and write) is integral to that work. I was thinking about the “why” as I returned my copy to the library. I think your stated reasons are big ones.

    “I think it would destroy the pleasure of reading…” I have to agree with this commentator. As you (and Richard Wright) point out, we read for very important reasons. I admire Nina’s accomplishment but I savor and relish my reading too much to do it that quickly.

    • Erin said:

      What a coincidence that we should all be talking around a similar subject. I’ve only read a couple essays by Wright, and that was way back in college, so I’m curious to check out “Black Boy” now. Thanks for the recommendation. I’m curious: what did you finally decided are your reasons for reading?

      • I included my reasons in my 1st comment and then deleted them. I was thinking about the comment length, I guess. Lol. Anyway, I said I read to explore others’ ideas, satisfy curiosity and to educate myself. Also, many times I find it a good book comforting.

  3. Alex in Leeds said:

    I still haven’t read Nina’s book and really should. I read to discover more about the world rather than to escape so I’m interested in that element of her experience. I’ve never read a book a day and I’m curious whether she ever DNF’d anything? I can imagine trying something, not enjoying it and moving on to finish another book and it being interesting and fun. I can’t imagine being locked into any book I picked up and having to read it however I felt… that just doesn’t sound fun, it sounds gruelling!

    • Erin said:

      Alex, that’s a really good point. Having to trudge through a book I didn’t like would put me off, too. Nina explains in her book that a couple months into the project she picked up a Nick Hornby novel (Housekeeping vs. the Dirt) where a character says, “Read anything, as long as you can’t wait to pick it up again.” She took that advice to heart and, for the rest of her year, if she picked up a book and wasn’t into it within the first ten pages, she’d put it down and try another.

      • Alex in Leeds said:

        Ah that makes more sense. I like the sound of that as a challenge much more. :)

  4. mrszeg said:

    I read a lot and often, but do not think I could read a book a day and gain anything from it. I do not think I could fully appreciate and give a book the respect it deserves in a day. I like to savor each read, not breeze through it.

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