Nina Sankovitch: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) A Memoir

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a memoir I’ve been eying for a while until I finally bought it. The subtitle – My Year Of Magical Reading – obviously an allusion to Joan Didion’s memoir – annoyed me a bit but I liked the idea behind the book.

After the early death of her beloved sister, Nina tries for several years to overcome her grief and feelings of guilt when she finally comes up with a cunning idea. Reading has always been important for her and her family. Reading instructs and entertains but it can console and give hope as well. That’s how she decided that she would read one novel per day for a whole year and write about it on her blog Read All Day.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair tells the story of that year, interweaving it with memories and stories of her family and herself. Not all the 365 books she has read in one year are described or mentioned but she writes in detail about a few which were especially meaningful. She summarizes them briefly and writes why they were important, what memories they triggered, how they helped her heal.

The list of all the 365 books can be found at the end of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair and on her blog. They don’t follow any specific order. One book led to the next and many were recommendations from family and friends and later from readers of the blog.

While I expected slightly more, I still liked reading the book. I liked her infectious enthusiasm. Each book is a world to discover and she tackles the ambitious goal with a lot of energy and passion.

Some of the books are so important because they help her explore her story or the story of her family. Harry Mulisch’s The Assault is one of them and so is Schlink’s Self’s Deception. But there are many more.

Crime novels are among her and her family’s favourite books, each member loves another writer. Nina thinks that what she loves best about them is the fact that they re-establish order. Things make sense in crime novels.

The parts in the book I enjoyed the most weren’t only those about books but those in which she describes the many little joys life has to offer. A meal with friends, a sunset, a newly planted tree, a lilac bush and the many cherished memories of her sister that make it easier to let go of her grief.

As was to be expected with a book like this I ended up with a list of books I’d like to read now.

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog – L’élégance du hérisson

Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter

Harry Mulisch’s The Assault

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s On Kindness

Kevin Canty Where the Money Goes

Chris Cleave Little Bee

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Thing Around Your Neck

While I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute must-read, it’s a nice way to spend a few hours. I liked her voice and her stories. Just be prepared, if you don’t have as much time at hand, you might end up being a bit envious.

I have a fondness for this type of project. It doesn’t even have to be reading a book per day. There are some other 365 and similar projects like that I enjoyed reading about. Many are based on blogs or turn into blogs like the famous Julie and Julia.

Have you read about any interesting projects or self-experiments like this? And what about the books on my list, have you read any of them?