Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, by Nina Sankovitch

I was sent a pitch from the publisher about Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch which has just been released in trade paperback. I felt compelled to give it a go. I wasn't sure if I would like it or not but I was willing to take a risk. I ended up really loving it - mostly because I read it at the perfect time.

In 2005, Nina Sankovitch lost her sister to cancer and felt her life being filled with anger, bitterness and fear. She didn't understand why her sister had to die, while she had to live. In an effort to work through the grief and fear so that she could begin enjoying her own life again, Sankovitch decided to pull back from her hectic life and read one book a day for one year. As a mother to four boys, this was indeed a rather significant challenge. She did not wish to neglect her family during this year, but she found herself in a position wherein she did not need to work outside of the home and as her children attended school, she had the freedom and the flexibility to give this challenge a go. The end result of her challenge is Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, and her book blog,

I half-expected that Tolstoy and the Purple Chair would be a series of reflections on the books Sankovitch read,but that wasn't really the case. Yes, she does reference and describe some of the stories that she spent time with, but mostly she tells you her own personal story and the story of her sister, Anne-Marie. Truthfully, I identified with this book very well because she writes her thoughts about books in much the same manner as I do. (She's probably way more personal than I am though.) You could read Reading to Know and learn about books (and I hope that you do) but you wouldn't help but come to know me better through the words which I have written as well. Books define and describe my life. They shape my thoughts, they challenge and change me. Sprinkled into every review is a description of how I think, of what I believe and, ultimately, who I am. So it was with some relief that I sank into Sankovitch's story because it wasn't just a description of books (most of the ones mentioned I haven't read and likely will not read as her reading tastes are much different than mine!) but it was her story. I found her story very interesting.

It "just so happens" that I have been in a great reading funk of late, having been terribly preoccupied with life. Just as Sankovitch acknowledges her duty, care and responsibility to her family, so do I. As much as I would like to spend my days reading, that isn't what I'm called to do all of the time. (It is instead what I am able to do some of the time and I find those moments spent in books to be a great relief and blessing!) Last week Jonathan was out of town on a business trip and life continued on without him whether I liked it or not. It was a stressful week, with very little sleep. On the tails of that adventure, we had friends come in from out-of-town for a visit. (That part was fun. Just to be clear!) But I was good and tired of being on the go and have been working on catching up on sleep and sanity. On Sunday evening this week I picked up this book and started reading it. On Monday I devoured the rest of it. (So, I didn't read it in one day but I think two is pretty good, all things considered!)

It's hard to explain to a non-reader but I really need the time to read. I need the peace and quiet. I need to step away from distractions and turn down the noise of the rest of life and just sink into a book. It's not so much that books offer an escape, although I suppose that could be true in some ways. Mostly, they allow me to think. When life gets to be all about how many diapers have been changed and how many times my name is called out in the space of two seconds (I jest. Sort of.) and I'm desperate for a reason to exhale, a book will usually (always) do the trick. Having a few uninterrupted moments to engage with a story which defines my thoughts and allows me feel like a creative person with useful gifts to contribute to my family is incalculably valuable. I learn myself in books and I learn to teach my children as a result of them as well. It's hard to explain, really, and if you "get it" then you likely are a book person also. There is some doubt in my head that I would have to explain myself to Nina Sankovitch. I think she gets it.

The difference between Sankovitch and myself is that I am a Christian and she is not. Jonathan and I have had grief in our lives, with the death of parents, siblings and an assortment of other random trials. Sankovitch lacks faith in God and so she is sort of left with self to figure out how to cope and press on with life. I, on the other hand, have a great hope. I have a faith in Jesus Christ and in that faith I place all of my hopes and find all of my rest. (Ps. 62:5; Isaiah 40:30-31; Romans 5:1-5) I do not place faith in finding my truth in books, but rather I delight in the rest which they provide as well as the clarity of thought they promote. Perhaps I would say that I enjoy books as a great gift from the Lord and I find it to be a great responsibility to choose the books which I read wisely and well because I know that they will have an impact on me and a certain amount of influence and so I am obligated to consider which books I will read carefully.

Sankovitch found "truths" for herself in the books which she read (just like I find truths in the books which I read!) and begins to cope with the loss of her sister. Over the course of the year she examines all of life through the lens of the written word and discusses many subjects in light of what she has been reading. She talks about her family and how they interact and relate to one another. She talks about Christmases and birthdays, her family history (her parents immigrated to the US after WWII and their life stories are amazing!) and, of course, her relationship with Anne-Marie. There was only one chapter which I skipped almost in its entirely and that was the one in which she discussed her views of sex as it related to books. I didn't want and/or need to know about her experiences. As I say, I skipped the entire chapter once I realized what it was about therefore I can't really tell you how detailed she became on the subject, but I can tell you that you can skip that chapter entirely and not miss anything!

To me, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair was fascinating (ignoring the fact that even Oprah recommends it!) because Sankovitch acknowledges the power that books - the written word - has to change and shape lives. She relates to book characters and learns life lessons from the situations that those characters get themselves into. She sees herself and sees the need to change sometimes, yes. She also, ultimately, sees a great beauty in the world which is so fun to hear her talk about. (It struck me as a very Montgomery-esque, I guess you could say.) No matter how hard life is at times, there is still beauty to be found and things to be thankful for.

I marked a few descriptive passages, but I think, ultimately, this is my favorite:

. . . [B]ooks were showing me that everyone suffers, at different times in their lives. And that yes, in fact, there were many people who knew exactly what I was going through. Now, through reading, I found that suffering and finding joy are universal experiences, and that those experiences are the connection between me and the rest of the world. My friends could have told me the same, I know, but with friends there are always barriers, hidden corners, and covered emotions. In books, the characters are made known to me, inside and out, and in knowing them, I know myself, and the real people who populate my world." (Chapter 13, Bound to the World, page 141)

While I do think Christians in particular need to work hard to be honest and sincere within the Body of Christ, the fact remains that people are still guarded (some times rightly so!) and so I can identify with her saying that books let you deal with the raw emotions of the real you. There is nothing to hide with a book and nothing for a book to hide from you. It's easy to relate to a book and maybe that's another reason I like them. While this may be so, and while I think she points out this fact very accurately, it doesn't mean that I agree that this is the way life is supposed to be. We need to learn to be vulnerable to one another and I also think Sankovitch would agree with that. For the sake of this blog post, I'll limit myself to saying that books do offer us a way to examine ourselves privately and conform our thoughts accurately. Of course, the only perfect book to do this with is the Word of God but Jesus did teach in parables to make His point a time or two and I think fictional stories are beneficial in teaching us more about ourselves as we are now, and who we ought to be.

Ultimately, I found Tolstoy and the Purple Chair to be quite fascinating and I'm glad to have read it. I actually suspect that this might be one of my favorite reads of 2012 but I don't say that in order to recommend it. Rather, I say that because I personally connected with the way that Nina Sankovitch approached books and treated them as worthy friends. I couldn't say whether this book would have the same effect with you. You must choose wisely and well for yourself and this one might be better passed on by. For my part, I'm glad I stopped life to sit down and read it. I feel so much better now.

Thanks to Harper Perennial for providing a copy to me in exchange for my honest thoughts.


Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

Sounds good! I like to read about reading. :-(

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

Oops! :-) (That's the second time I've done that today, and it's only 8:06. Step away from the iPad, Amy.)

Shonya said...

Oooooh, that sounds really good! You should have seen me on this side of the computer screen, nodding my head, smiling, murmuring mmmm-hmmmm, etc. I, too, NEED the time to read. Most of my life is consumed with caring for my family, but I make a conscious effort to carve out time to read. Over and over again I've had people express incredulity at how much I read, wondering how I find the time. It's simply a priority for me. Quiet time in my house is 2-3 pm and you will find me at that time with my nose in a book. :)

I told a new friend this last weekend and she expressed admiration saying she uses that time for dishes/laundry/housework, etc. I told her I start my "servants" (throw laundry in the washing machine, start the dishwasher) and read while they work. :) I'm convinced I'm a better mom for it, and I am teaching them to love learning by continuing to make learning a priority in my own life.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

A few rather random thoughts: Many (if not most) of us who enjoy this blog need our reading time.

The goal to read one book each day is interesting to me in that I am reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at the moment, and the protagonist does just that as a child. It would be nice to have that kind of reading time again, but I'll take what I can get.

I completely agree that books can provide a certain portion of the "community," if you will. We do not just live in the fellowship of those who are alive today, but we draw inspiration and truth from those who have gone before. Indeed, one of the historical legacies of Judaism and Christianity is the preservation of writing and literacy throughout the ages. We are the people of The Book, after all.

Shonya, it always warms my heart to hear of the use of child labor ;)

Barbara H. said...

I love the cover of that book!

Yes, I definitely get it. I don't know if my family understands that reading for me is a need and not just a pleasant pastime. They do feed my habit, though, by giving me books as gifts, and I don't read when they need my attention.

When I was younger I think reading shaped my thoughts: now I think I'd say it challenges them. There's a combination of "You, too? I thought no one but myself thought that" (to paraphrase Lewis) as well as "Really? I hadn't thought about it quite that way" reactions to what I've read, sometimes within the same book.

I don't know that I'd seek this out -- our reading tastes are similar -- but I might. I'm definitely intrigued.

Annette Whipple said...

Love the post and the follow up comments, too.

Yes...most of your readers will nod their head at this post and your thoughts on reading.

One book a week is good for ME. :)

Shonya said...

Ack! Diary of an Autodidact, while my children certainly do their fair share of responsibilities around here, I can't say I'd refer to them as *servants*. :) I was referring to my washing machine, dishwasher, etc. (You know, the Proverbs 31 woman had her servants, modern conveniences are mine!) The little children nap during my reading time, and my big kids are usually sprawled out with their own books during that time--that or pounding on the piano!

BerlinerinPoet said...

Glad to hear this is such a good one, Carrie. I've been in a bit of a reading funk as well, and maybe I'll just need something like this to pick me back up too.

Sky said...

I am curious and I greatly like the excerpt you posted here. For I do believe that by reading the correct books, one gets to know oneself even better.
(I'll ignore the fact that Oprah also recommended this book solely based on my respect for your literary taste...)

Top  blogs