I was most excited when the copy of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading dropped through my letterbox. It has been in my top twenty list of ‘please read soon!’ books since I found out about it, but I was unwilling to pay full price for a copy because I had read some rather unfavourable reviews of it. If it was anything like Sankovitch’s second book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, however, I knew it would be a real treat.
After the death of her sister Anne-Marie, the grieving author decided to ‘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’. Its blurb heralds it ‘a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading’; just the thing for bookworms. Sankovitch began her year of reading on the 28th of October 2008, three years after her sister’s passing, for the following reasoning: ‘I looked back to what the two of us had shared. Laughter. Words. Books… That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life. I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again’. For Sankovitch, the catalyst is that she is approaching the age – forty-six – that Anne-Marie was when she died.
In undertaking her project, Sankovitch put several sanctions in place to ensure that she made the most of the year for which a similar opportunity in future may never come: ‘The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t re-read any books I’d already ready and I had to write about every book I read… All the books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have…’. Sankovitch also chooses to read from the comfort of a purple chair, which she has had since pregnant with her eldest son. She writes wonderfully about the very experience of getting to grips with a book: ‘For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotones and frustrations. I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience. Books would give me all that and more… My year of reading would be my escape back into life.’ As well as the experiences which her current projects bring her, Sankovitch weaves in familial memories, which makes her memoir all the stronger. Her writing is bright and intelligent, and never feels forced or overdone.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair does tend to become a little cheesy at times – for example, the tendency to draw out morals from every book – but it is a great read, and a marvellous project to undertake. Sankovitch’s book is about remembrance, as well as forging new memories with the books which she has chosen to include during her project. I would personally love to undertake something just like this; I tend to average around a book a day, but I do not read as methodically as Sankovitch does. This is partly, I think, because I do not choose what I read based on whether it is of a manageable length to get through in a day, as she does. I can spend a week reading something long (hello, Dostoevsky), and then get through seven or eight novellas in a weekend. I read as often as I can, but sometimes life gets in the way. Kudos, then, to Sankovitch’s husband and four sons, who allowed her the freedom to do what she most wanted to; they allowed her to grieve in a constructive way, and from what she writes of her reflections, it seems as though she got an awful lot from the process.
Just a tiny niggle; I would have liked to see the list of read books in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I was interested in the journey which she took from one tome to another, and how one choice perhaps led onto another. Whilst she does not even mention a lot of the books which she read, those which she does discuss are varied and interesting.
The enduring message for me is as follows: ‘I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much’.