Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

On the 366th consecutive day of her journey to find life through the pages of paperbacks and hardcovers, Nina Sankovitch did something you can’t help but laugh at.

For an entire year – 365 straight days including Christmas and Thanksgiving and birthdays and family emergencies – Nina read a book. Not a part of a book – a book. The whole thing, from title page to the author’s bio in the back.

It wasn’t an easy journey. There were late nights and dreary eyes, both caused by the interrupted days that come with being a wife and mother of four boys.

So on the first day in a year where Nina could do whatever she wanted, anytime she wanted, freed from the subconscious nagging of continuing a task she put her heart into … she read another book in its entirety.

“I couldn’t go cold turkey,” Nina told me over the phone, laughing.

She re-read Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill, a memoir published in January 2009 when Athill was 91, about growing old and the wisdom gained over the course of a full life and facing your own mortality.

“She just had such energy,” Nina said. “Everyday brought a new experience or a new friend or something different. I thought that was a good way to end [the year] and then move on with my post-a-book-a-day life.”

*            *            *

I stumbled upon Tolstoy and the Purple Chair – the byproduct of Nina’s year of reading a book every day – a couple months ago only because I have a bookstore-habit of checking the memoir and biography sections.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (

It was sitting out on a display table after recently being released in paperback, and the cover of a chair and a stack of books with a coffee cup resting on top, combined with the subtitle “My Year of Magical Reading,” caught my eye.

“A year of ‘magical’ reading?” I thought. “Who wouldn’t want that?”

I flipped the book over and read the description on the back. “Caught up in grief after the death of her sister, Nina Sankovitch decided to stop running and start reading,” it read. “For once in her life she would put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom.”

I’m a sucker for these kinds of books, the ones about things that everyone wants to do but hardly anybody does because they usually take savings, time and unemployment, in some order. They’re oddly liberating and inspiring, because you get to live the story of somebody who wasn’t afraid. Somebody who wasn’t afraid of the unknown, of the unconventional, of the cost. Something drives a person to go against the prickly grain of order, and you get to experience that something.

Of course, I’ve read enough of these to know the people who write those blurbs on the back, the little darlings rooted in capitalism, are very good at what they do. They’re very good at selling. Some of these books begin to sputter quickly, as the story begins to repeat itself and you realize that greed took a damn good magazine essay and forced it through the processor of American publishing, leaving an exposed and watered down mug of nothingness. And those are a chore – I skim the middle and read the end.

But you keep buying these books, keep taking chances on authors you’ve never heard of, seemingly common people who want you to believe they have an uncommon story to tell, because eventually you run into one like Tolstoy.

*            *            *

As Nina writes in the prologue of Tolstoy, in September 2008 she and her husband Jack left their Connecticut home and drove out to Long Island, N.Y., for a weekend away. It had been about three years since Nina’s sister, Anne-Marie, had died of bile duct cancer.

Nina spent those three years doing what people think they’re supposed to do in the face of death – keep busy, keep moving, keep living. But Nina wasn’t trying to live just for herself. She was trying to live for Anne-Marie, too, who was 46 years old when she died. Nina writes:

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 the pain.

Over dinner on Long Island, Nina and her husband raised glasses of white wine and she committed to her year of stopping everything to read one book a day, everyday, no exceptions. Nina had worked as a corporate lawyer and a coastal attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, but she didn’t have those commitments anymore. She had the time to try something new, take a leap to shake herself up and out of the malaise of agony and the regret of lost years. She would begin on her birthday, Oct. 28.

She writes that she wanted to slow down and find an answer for the pain, but that wasn’t really what pushed her to do this. Yes, she wanted to find a better way to cope, but Nina’s motivation was much deeper than that. It came from an awakening and a deep soul cleansing more than from the need to heal a personal wound, as cutting and raw as it was.

“The real trigger was that I was turning 46, the age that my sister was when she died,” Nina told me. “It really hit me then that she was gone. I said, ‘OK, you’re 46, and she’ll never be anything but 46.’ I wanted to figure out how to live a good life, not just consumed by my sadness of losing her.”

*            *            *

My favorite chapter in Tolstoy is No. 3, “Such beauty in the world.”

Sure, you can pick any number of chapters as a favorite. They’re all compelling and enlightening because the book isn’t a simple documentation of the works Nina read during her year. It’s a story about Nina’s family and, of course, Anne-Marie, pieced together by common themes that Nina discovered while she read. Nina writes about her childhood in Evanston, Ill., and young relationships and sibling tension and, painfully and thoughtfully, the physical decline of her sister.

But chapter No. 3 resonated the most with me because it’s about memory, which I believe is at the core of Nina’s experiment and her book. Nina writes about Elegance and the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and recalls stories moments she shared with her sister and children. She wrote about days in Central Park and some crush in Barcelona named Nico, whose motorcycle Nina rode on along the foreign coast. The message Nina took from Elegance was poignant and sobering:

Each moment caught in a lifetime of experience can be brought forward. Sustenance in the here and now is found in the past. Good things have happened before and will happen again.

This realization forced Nina to latch onto the old and bring it forward, stocking an inventory of fuel for the inevitable days where she couldn’t muster enough for herself.

It also forced her to commence Step Two of her insane read-a-book-day-for-a-year experiment.

*            *            *

In the summer of 2008, before she began her year of reading, Nina launched with the purpose of providing a place where people could share books with others and share the act of reading.

“But then I wanted my year to have purpose, not only for myself but to give back,” Nina said. “I wanted to encourage adults reading for pleasure, I thought it would be a good example [for kids], and I also wanted discipline in my life.”

So not only would Nina read 356 books in a year, she would also write a review for each one and post it on her blog. She’d sit in the purple chair — you’ll have to read the book for the full description, I’m not spoiling it – and read during the day and at night, jotting notes in a notebook, and then she’d post her reviews in the morning.

“That really helped me remember what I read,” Nina said.

It kept her accountable and scratching the itch to share her experiences with other readers. It was an innocent desire, the writing and sharing of reviews. Nina never set out to write a book. While she devoured the lives of published authors, she never longed to be on the other side, her name scrawled on the spine of a volume.

She wasn’t even looking for attention, necessarily. Christmas came two months into her year, and Nina says she was pleasantly surprised she had made it that far. Not many friends and family even knew she was carrying on with the reading, fearing that it would be overblown, whipped up into something it wasn’t meant to be.

But day after day she read and posted reviews, sharing the story of her books and herself and her sister, and people read. If Nina was consistent and stayed with the process of reading and writing, it was inevitable that others would begin to take notice. Towards the end of her year, she was profiled in the New York Times, among other places, and book publishers began calling. Nina still didn’t see herself as a writer.

“At first I didn’t see how it could be a book, because I put everything on my blog,” Nina said. “But then I saw that I could make it a story about my sister and write about the general themes that helped me.”

Penguin Books was one of the publishers that called to inquire about Nina’s book. Penguin didn’t end up buying Tolstoy, but Amy Hertz, an editor there, asked Nina if she would begin writing book reviews for the Huffington Post, where Hertz is the Books editor.

Nina still writes reviews for the Post and for her own blog, and she’s working on another book due out next year.

All Nina wanted to be was a devout reader, but she could fight being a writer for only so long.

*            *            *

There’s a common fact that’s true about all good memoirs: They’re hard. Hard to write, hard to read. Nina had read plenty of memoirs before, but like her other writing, she never planned to pen one.

“You have to be very truthful in a memoir, because if you’re not people will know,” Nina told me. “And it’s hard to open yourself up and expose something really integral about you, knowing that strangers are reading it.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I told Nina how I felt reading her book and the impressions it left on me.

I, like most people, have lost loved ones to cancer — both grandmothers, both at a young age. I conceded that I haven’t lost a sibling, but the pain was, and is, very real. It’s a pain that is poked at again and again reading Tolstoy, because it’s difficult. Nina makes sure of that by putting you in her sister’s New York hospital room, by putting you in the car when Nina receives the phone call. But those sorrows came and went, replaced by inspiration.

“Your book shook me in a way I can’t really explain,” I told Nina. “I’m not sure if this makes sense at all, but it was like pre-healing. It makes you stop and think while there’s time.”

Nina appreciated it, I think, because her book isn’t meant to be defeating. It’s meant to be real.

‘The first few chapters are very hard for someone who has lost somebody to cancer,” Nina said. “But in the end, it’s not all sad. I think you see there’s a lot of joy.”

E-mail: Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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1 Response to Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

  1. Pingback: “Renegades Write The Rules” by Amy Jo Martin: 5 takeaways | Western Sideline

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