TOLSTOY AND THE PURPLE CHAIR by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
Nina Sankovitch
Harper
ISBN-13:  978-0061999840
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As children, we are taught to read so that we may gain knowledge.  Our parents, our families, or our teachers encourage us to learn from books.  Knowledge, and higher education, is  means to gain a better socio-economic standing.  However, if we are truly lucky, we are shown ,or discover for ourselves, that reading books is a pleasure unto itself.  Books, and  the shared love of reading them, can avail us to friendships  and enrich our relationships with other people.  When we are lonely, books can serve as our companions.  Books take us away from the daily grind.   We can choose to read a book, not because it’s part of any curriculum, but because we want to gain wisdom and answer questions which we specifically ask.   Books provide comfort, sustenance,  refuge and, at times, rescue.  In Nina Sankovitch’s memoir  Tolstoy and The Purple Chair, Sankovitch writes about how reading one book each day for an entire year (and writing a review of each book) helped her find her way through her grief after the death of  her eldest sister Anne-Marie.

Sankovitch and her two older sisters Anne-Marie and Natasha were raised in Evanston, Illinois by her father, a surgeon, and her mother, a professor of literature at Northwestern University.  Both parents grew up in Europe during World War II.  Her father survived both the Soviet and the German invasions of Belarus.  Her mother was a girl in Antwerp during the Nazi Occupation of Belgium.  As they had no other relatives in the United States, the Sankovitch family was especially close-knit.   Their home was filled with books and with classical music.  Sankovitch writes,

“Three girls, all of us different, but all of us loved books.  From the time we could toddle, we toddled towards books.”

When she grew up, Sankovitch went to college, and then on to Harvard Law School.  In the late 1980s, she took a job at a law firm in New York City.  There she met her husband Jack Menz.  Sankovitch and Jack have four sons, Peter, Michael, George and Martin.  The rest of  the Sankovitch clan had moved to the East Coast.  Anne-Marie, a highly respected expert in Renaissance architecture, and her husband Marvin lived in Bellport, Long Island.  Sankovitch describes her sister Anne-Marie as being beautiful,  as well as highly intelligent and intuitive.  Anne-Marie does not suffer fools.  Their lives are rich, full of fun family times, great food, sharing books, rewarding work, and good health.  But in early 2005, Anne-Marie was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, which is a terribly swift and terminal disease.  Sankovitch, “the funny” sister, visits Anne-Marie at the hospital in Manhattan nearly every day, wearing outlandish outfits to make her sister smile, and bringing books, usually humorous books, so that Anne-Marie’s laughter might fight off “the evil cells.”   Yet, despite all of her family’s love and devotion, Anne-Marie died at age 46 in April 2005.

For the next three years, Sankovitch lives “life at a gallop and never looked back, for fear of what I might see.” Anne-Marie’s death leaves Sankovitch feeling that she “was responsible now for two lives, my sister’s and my own, and, damn, I’d better live life well.”  I think this is a very natural, very human response, a type of survivor’s guilt, when someone we love dies.  (I myself had the same reaction when I lost my father and my aunt within two months of one another in 1991.)  Yet, we can only outrun the grief, the fear, and the guilt which occurs after a death occurs for so long if we ourselves are to survive.  Sankovitch looked for the common connection between before her sister died, and after, and realized that, other than love, what bound her with Anne-Marie was books.

“The more I thought about how to stop and get myself back together as one sane, whole person, the more I thought about books.  I thought about escape.  Not running to escape, but reading to escape.”

She comes up with a plan:  beginning on her own 46th birthday in late October 2008, Sankovitch would read one book every day for an entire year.  She also will  review each book  by the next day on a blog she titles “Read All Day.”  Sankovitch chose the books she will read by “reaching only for those [hardcover] books with a width of one inch…” since that is equal to approximately a three-hundred-page book.  She believes that will give her six hours each day (four to read the book, and two to write the review).  She has the full support of her husband Jack, and plans on reading while her four sons are in school.  However, there is a saying: “We plan, God laughs.”  Children get sick. Houses get messy. Meals need to be prepared. Still, Sankovitch manages to read a book a day, mostly while sitting in her purple chair, and she writes a review for each title.

Sankovitch gains enormous insight and wisdom from her reading.  She sees each book as an opportunity for a lesson in how to live.  She realizes with her first book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, “…that I would always have my memories of Anne-Marie to sustain me.”  The act of remembrance is a a connection to our dead.  Within a few months, Sankovitch discerns,

“I was finding beauty, and recovering memories, and absolving guilt.  Seeking peace and discovering joy.  My path forward was clear to me.  It was a path set ablaze by words, words made into sentences and paragraphs and chapters and books.  My way was paved by books.”

While I do not want to reveal which books Sankovitch discovers and what understanding she acquires from her year of reading,  I promise that she shares whatever she attains with splendid, concise prose and generosity.   Sankovitch is a sage and shrewd writer with an open heart, and all the love she has had and does have in her life spills onto her own pages.   Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a terribly beautiful and truly enlightening book.  Every book lover should own it.  Every person should read it.

Note:  The complete list of titles which Sankovitch read between October 28, 2008 and October 28, 2009 is included at the back of her book.

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