Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch.

"My reading, sometimes painful and often exhausting, was pulling me out of the shadows and into the light," (147).

I firmly believe that there is a time and a place for most of the books we read. We make conscious decisions to pick one title over another, an author we love over an unknown, and whether to take a chance on a random book sitting on a shelf at the bookstore. Books have a way of finding us when we need them most, offering us comfort and advice.

I have been amazed over the course of the last year and a half by how these books I am reading are truly reflecting the issues going on in my life. I have found constant comfort in reading these classics and understanding their importance to my own life.

I started this journey in a very dark place. Unemployed, frustrated, and depressed, I had nothing of purpose to keep me going. That is when I came up with the idea to read 250 classics. It was an act of desperation, an act of healing. I knew that I needed something to push myself, something to inspire, and something to give me hope that things would get better.

The main constant in my life has always been books. I always remember reading. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t reading. There were countless vacations where I would bag as many books as possible into the biggest bag I could get away with just so I could read. I can remember lying on the end of the dock at my grandparents’ cottage in the Northern part of Michigan just reading. I was the only person who took a book to read at night while at camp. Matt continues to make fun of me when I shove a book in my purse to take with me when we go out. I even bring books to parties.

It isn’t that I think I will read all these places (because wouldn’t you think I was a total nerd to be reading in the midst of a fiesta?). I bring a book with me because it comforts me. And knowing that I have words waiting for me calms me.

When I decided to read finally pick this one up off the shelf, I knew it was the right choice for me at the time. From the first page, I felt like someone got it, someone understood. While her route to reading and setting her own reading project is different than my own, we both approached it with many of the same purposes.

Her pain in the first few chapters as she begins took a strong hold of me and never let go. She begins to explain how her year of reading one book per day began, with the death of her elder sister. She explains how her world fell apart in a short period of time, and how books became the way she would piece it back together.

While I didn’t have the amount of pain Sankovitch did, I can relate to the depths of depression she described. I started my own journey out of frustration and the need to have a purpose. She says it this way,

“I was ready—ready to sit down in my purple chair and read. For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotonies and frustrations. I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience. Books would give me all that, and more. After three years carrying the truth of my sister’s death around with me, I knew I would never be relieved of my sorrow. I was not hoping for relief. I was hoping for answers. I was trusting in books to answer the relentless questions of why I deserved to live. And how I should live. My year of reading would be my escape back into life,” (31).

I wrote in my very first post here that, “I want to find a greater purpose for myself. I want to be more than myself. This is probably the hardest thing to explain, but perhaps in time I can make it clearer.”

Now I know what I meant by that because Sankovitch said it so much better than I ever could. Throughout her entire reading experience in that one year, she knew that she was healing herself through literature. It is an experience that is hard to explain, but I understood. I knew she was speaking to me and I found so much wisdom and hope in what she had to say.

It wasn't about reading to forget what happened to her sister. She used reading to come to terms with the events life had thrown at her, as a chance to understand why things happen the way they do,

"We cannot control events around us, but we are responsible for our reactions to those events," (191).

Her message is one of hope and of the healing power of literature. If we fully immerse ourselves in our reading, accepting and giving our own experiences into it, we can learn how to go about healing our hurts. She winds bit and pieces from the 365 books she read into her discussions, explaining how that particular title helped her, inspired her.

"During my yearlong respite filled with books, I recuperated. even more, I learned how to move beyond recuperation to living," (218).

It is as if Sankovitch has been inside my head since I started this process. This book, her thoughts, her reactions to the literature she read, it all clicked and made perfect sense. For me, this book was an incredibly personal and moving experience. As she counted the memories brought up by the books she was reading, the themes she was exploring, I would have to stop to think about the countless memories I have reflected on in my own reading process. She took the time to build her readers her back-story, connecting the books she was reading to the people in her life. I do the same here, and I see my own family in what I read.

But her skill comes in the straight-forward style she uses. Sankovitch set a goal to read one book per day, no matter the circumstances, and she succeeded. While some might think that reading a book a day is a pointless exercise and might make reading a chore, I can understand why she did it. She needed the time to heal herself, to give her the opportunity to remember happiness, and to have faith in herself.

It was inspiring. I marked so many passages that I cannot share them all. But know this...if you have ever felt the healing power of words, the feeling that an author truly understood you in the moment you were sitting down to read their book, then Sankovitch's story will touch you deeply. It is full of hope, of power, and of healing. It brought me to tears because it reminded me of the things I love most, the dreams I used to have, and who I used to be. More importantly, it showed me that I am doing the right thing, that I will continue my own literary odyssey through literature, and that there is some level of purpose in what I do. I never want to feel without purpose again, and this has given me the resurgence in hope I so needed.

"Lucky people, to dream all their lives. A certain profound optimism is required: the belief that dreams can come true. And I realized there was yet another reason for me to be on my reading quest. To get back to that place where I was sure of all my dreams," (182).


  1. I have this book on my TBR list. I thought it looked really interesting when I saw it. I am so glad you enjoyed it- you wrote a beautiful review of it.

  2. This is a very touching review. The book sounds really amazing, thank you for sharing!

  3. I think it is a sign of a true reader when they always stuff a book in their purse/bag. You just never know when the opportunity to read will present itself. I forgot my purse at home when I went to work yesterday and felt out of sorts without my book available to me. Of course, we had a SLOW day at work and I could have read if it was with me. I need to put Purple Chair on my wish list. Sounds good.

  4. this sounds like a wonderful book! I cannot wait to track down a copy. even though I have not read this book I can tell that your review has done it justice!

  5. I was v curious about this one, but when I saw it grew out of a blog, I kind of wrote it off (I've yet to have success w a blog-based book). Would you say it reads more like a book or a book-i-fied blog?

  6. I never leave the house without a book. I went to an outdoor wine festival last weekend and I stuck a book in my purse... in a ziplock bag because there was a chance of rain. I may have a problem. I love your review though, reading is amazing. I've added this to my TBR list.

  7. This is a really lovely review, Allie. I love this thought:

    I bring a book with me because it comforts me. And knowing that I have words waiting for me calms me.

    Very nicely expressed. I do the same thing and for the very same reason. I just like to know it's there.

    I like the final quote that you included as well. That's how I feel about my reading journey also - and more specifically how I feel about Thomas Hardy. This usually baffles people but reading his work has actually helped me to re-connect with how I used to feel about life and has even made me more excitedly optimistic about it. Go figure.

  8. I have been SO looking forward to your review of this one, and even the review is so much more than I'd hoped! Wonderful, wonderful thoughts youv'e shared here, Allie. Now more than ever in my life, I consider reading a lifeline. Having a child is WONDERFUL, but it also means a fundamental change in the amount of time we have for ourselves and our own thoughts. It's after having had Greyson that reading became that much more important in connecting me to who I feel I am inside. It quiets my mind amidst CRAZY work issues and a very full family life. It's not rooted in sorrow, but I think the bottom line is the "anchor" of reading in our lives.

    Can't wait to read this one!

  9. I have always felt that we (readers) are meant to be reading the exact book we are reading at the exact time we are reading it ... that books have a way of finding us, as you say! I can't wait to read this one, especially after your review! :)

  10. Oh, I must read this -- at the right time. I think right now it would be too close to home.

    My dad died recently -- and I can relate to the desire to survive, through books. It's a part of my story, too. I had no where else to turn, but to history. History is teaching me that death is not the end, if we use our voices, in literature. We can speak to centuries. We can hold the hand of a woman in 1862 -- if we take the time to search for, and read, her book. She will console, forever.

  11. I'm currently reading this and so far it's lovely - I didn't read your entire review but it's nice to know you appreciated the book.

    I will read your entire story once I myself am finished with this book, there's a good chance I will comment again :)

  12. I must read this! It sounds so good. I struggle with depression so knowing she came to books with that in mind, I feel this is something I must read. Thanks for the personal response to the book, sounds like what I need to read.

  13. This book sounds amazing. Add me to the list of people who decided to read this one after this review :)