Lettered Ladies Book Club: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
I still can’t believe that Nina Sankovitch did what she did. Reading a 250-300 page book every day — and then writing about it! — for an entire year seems frankly impossible to me. Truly it does. Lettered Lady Kate could totally do this. She sacrifices no comprehension at all for her enviable speed, which likely rivals Sankovitch’s estimated speed of 70 pages per hour, but I have always been on the much slower side of the reading spectrum. I gravitate toward poetry which (so I justify) necessitates a slower, quieter pace and would take a modernist novel with arresting prose over a page-turner any day, so I don’t have a great sense of what the average upper limit of my reading speed is. But my lower limit would depress the mean to such an extent that I truly don’t think I could physically succeed with such an experiment. So my hat is off to Sankovitch both for setting for herself such an ambitious goal and, remarkably, achieving it.
Part memoir about her sister’s death, part chronicle of her year of reading a wide variety of books and what she gleaned from them, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading is ultimately Sankovitch’s attempt to learn how to live on in the face of intense grief and longing. The chapters are organized around themes like sorrow, forgiveness, guilt, and love, and in each Sankovitch offer bits and pieces of moments of her year in which she stumbles upon powerful lessons about such topics and then uses those lessons to reflect upon stories of her family’s history.
Because I am always interested in the logistics of such projects, I was intrigued by the rules Sankovitch set for herself: “no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t reread any books I’d already read; and I had to write about every book I read.” These seemed like sensible, if broad, parameters to me, and certainly my own leisure reading is subject to whatever whims I feel at the moment I sit down with a new book. But the wide range of books Sankovitch tackled made for a hodge-podge of topics and, as Kate so nicely articulated, commonplace life lessons, anchored as they were by the loss of her sister and her own experiences. So while I admittedly craved more method either in terms of the book’s organization or the project’s focus, I remain genuinely inspired by Sankovitch’s accomplishment, both in the number of books read and, more largely, in her understanding of what she needed to do to confront her grief and her commitment to seeing it through.
While I cannot, as confessed, replicate this experiment in my own life, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is making me think about what kinds of ambitious reading goals would be doable. So here’s what I’ve settled on: I have wanted, for many years, to tackle Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Given that it just had its 100 year anniversary of the publication of the first volume, now seems as good a time as any. At seven chunky volumes, I hesitate to hold myself to the promise of finishing it in the year ahead since I don’t want to read this to the exclusion of other books that are calling to me, but at the very least, I plan to get a respectable start. I do hope to find there something Kafka describes in a spectacular epigraph to Sankovitch’s memoir:
We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.
This, to me, exhibits a shocking insight: disasters, deaths, banishment, suicide — we might think of all of these things as events that would contribute to a frozen sea inside of us. And they certainly can. But they also can break us open in essential and ironically life-giving ways. So here’s to transformative reading — magical reading, indeed — and the worthy search for it.