Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
I’ve turned to books for solace, companionship, succor and sustenance throughout my life and they have never let me down. I am not alone. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, Nina Sankovitch movingly recounts her relationship with books as she works her way through unrelenting grief.
Sankovitch was always a reader, but when her sister died at age 46 she took that habit to a new level. Struggling with her loss, she embarked on a one-year journey to read a book a day and to write about it on her blog, Read All Day (www.readallday.org). Initially, she tried to work through her grief by “running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement.” It turns out, you can run but you can’t hide from grief.
The title is a riff on Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking that she wrote after the death of her husband. It won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and is one of my favorite books. Whereas, Didion is known for her reportorial ability to remain a detached observer to her grief, Sankovitch is eager to share her emotions and dig deep to reveal the depths of her despair. Hers is a raw and honest portrayal of how grief crippled her, and how books became the salve that allowed her to emerge from the darkness and begin to live again.
I must confess that I avoided reading Tolstoy when it came out almost a year ago even though I obtained a copy as soon as it was published. I was afraid of the sadness that lay between the covers, afraid that it might, somehow, entice my own grief to re-surface. The grief over the loss of my mother and others who have been taken from me in the last years had only just become manageable. I kept it by my bedside and picked it up every so often and then put it back in the stack. Recently, I took a month off from my blogging responsibilities to luxuriate in the books I had neglected over the last year. Tolstoy was the first book I picked up. Instead of making me sad or bringing back my own grief, it had the opposite effect. I should have known that it would, since books have always offered me solace.
This was a book that was impossible to put down until I finished it. Sankovitch beautifully captures her healing relationship with books and relays how “reading, it turns out, can be the ultimate therapy.” After a year of reading a book a day, Sankovitch emerged renewed. After reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, I did too.