December 23

Lettered Ladies Book Club: My take on Tolstoy, the Purple Chair, and the Act of Reading

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading

by Nina Sankovitch

To read one book every day for a year: that is the kind of goal I can get behind. As a professor, I read for hours every day, but those hours are usually scattered upon student papers, historical and theoretical works, and novels I happen to be teaching, leaving a sliver of time every night for reflective, pleasurable, personal reading. The most beautiful thing to me about this writer’s project is her commitment to concentration: to will oneself to think about a book, and work one’s way through it, without fail, every day, and then to write about it – that offers a level of depth in the reading experience I think we rarely allow ourselves. That is the kind of reading I did throughout my childhood and that drew me to literature as a profession. When I read deeply, I do not hear people entering or leaving a room: I am so immersed in the book that I am actually there, watching the snow fall at Plum Creek or drinking chocolate churned by waterfall with Charlie or seeing a ghastly, ghostly face lurking in Thornfield.

So, why am I with Sankovitch through her discussions of reading and her narrative of her family, but I am left cold when she transitions to the general lessons that are supposed to be universally applicable? I am engrossed when she discusses her own and her father’s struggles to accept the fact that they live while those they love have died. But, when she ends each chapter with a generalization about that process, I find myself skimming. Her efforts to tie each book back to her personal life are admirable but sometimes redundant, the lessons familiar and therefore not as life-affirming as I am sure the experience of writing the words was to her. I think that what novels can do is give us a way of opening up, accessing experience, that general dictums and “life lessons” cannot. She cannot make me viscerally understand that lesson by simply telling me what she has learned; but she can introduce me to her own story and to novels that might help me work through those lessons myself, in my own way, in my own time of need, whenever that may come.

Sankovitch strikes a chord when she speaks of the personal experience of sharing or recommending a book. I cannot help but invest a part of myself in each book I offer to someone. I am not passing along paper and glue: I am hoping that it will transport that person the same way it transported me. I am offering joy, excitement, suspense, and the absolute gratification of a book well-written which is also happily read. As I write this, I have just finished wrapping a Christmas present to my niece: the entire set of Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery. These are the faded pages I creased in my childhood. Rather than buying her new books, I decided to offer her mine: after all, I rarely reread them, and I know what they might mean to her. But, I also feel a sense of trepidation. What if she doesn’t like them? What if they are retired to a shelf? What if they are ignored rather than cherished? I offer these books in the hope that the little girl I love will have a reading experience that shapes her young life, that she will not fear being different, that she will have a passion for learning, that she will love deeply, as Anne does. She will discover her own lessons as she reads that I may not anticipate but that are impactful, nonetheless. It is one of the greatest gifts I could give her.

While some of the details of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair may not appeal to all readers, Sankovitch’s passion and her project certainly will. I plan to pass my copy along so that someone else is led to reflect on the act, and the meaning, inherent in reading.