From October 2008 through October 2009, I read a book a day.
My memoir about this year of reading – and a lifetime of reading — is entitled Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading.“Tolstoy” because I read his last novel during my year of reading; “Purple Chair” because I did a lot of my reading in a ratty, smelly, but very comfortable purple chair. And “Magical” because books are magic, powerful magic.
One of the books I read during my year of reading a book a day was Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. Mister Pip is set on a fictional island in the Pacific. The island is caught in the middle of a territorial war and the teacher in a small village has left, fleeing the conflict. An outsider married to a village insider offers to teach the local children. How he teaches them is by reading aloud from Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Terrible things happen on the island but one of the young girls of the village survives and one aspect of her survival is Great Expectations. As she explains it, it was “one book that supplied me with another world at a time when it was desperately needed. It gave me a friend in Pip. It taught me you can slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own … If that isn’t an act of magic, I don’t know what is.”
I agree with that brave girl. Books are magic because they can do so much: they can mirror our own experiences and show us we are not alone. They can also portray experiences we could never imagine ourselves in – and yet by reading, we find ourselves in that place and time and situation and we gain from that exposure.
The magic that I found in books was not two-fold or three-fold or even ten-fold: it was hundreds and hundreds fold and it taught me how to live, just when I needed most desperately to know.
How to live. It is a question we all ask ourselves, at one time or another. It is a question that comes up most horribly and emphatically when someone we know and love, dies.
Six years ago, my oldest sister died of cancer. Losing my sister was horrible in every way but the worst pain for me was brought on by knowing what Anne-Marie had lost. Only forty-six years old when she died, she lost everything that most of us take for granted: she lost time spent with her nephews or reading a new book or walking in Central Park in NYC. She lost her tomorrows.
Now it was up to me to live a life worthy of all the tomorrows I had been granted. I needed to live a life worth being alive for – a life she would have wanted for herself, and for me.
I could no longer have my sister’s wisdom or humor to guide me but I could turn to a trusted source: books. Books, like my sisters and my parents, had been a part of my life from the day I was born. I was the youngest of three girls in a closely-knit family, and we were all book lovers. Even before I could read, my parents or sisters would read to me. Our house had piles of books, we visited the local bookmobile and library branches weekly, and going to a bookstore was a special treat, better even than going to a carnival.
As I grew up into adolescence, books took on the role of providing company when I felt lonely among my peers, and guidance when I needed to figure out how to behave as life became more and more complicated. I started keeping a diary of favorite quotes from books, everything from “Tomorrow is another day” from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to “People do not complete us, we complete ourselves” from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Through college and law school I turned to books when I needed escape or wisdom or a good laugh or a good cry. I remember sobbing through The Hunchback of Notre Dame – why are people so mean to each other? — and feeling that after experiencing what Quasimodo had to deal with, how bad could first year law be?
The magic of books. I had turned to it before. And now I most desperately needed it again.
As I approached my 46th birthday, the same age at which my sister had died, I came to understand that it was time to sit myself down into a chair. It was time to sit down and read. Devotedly. My sister would have wanted it, and I most certainly wanted it. Not only would I read a book a day, I would write about each book I read, to make sure I really delved into what made the book tick, what the author was trying to convey and what I had found in my reading.
Of course I still had four kids to take care of, a husband, a house, cats and laundry and garden and meals to cook. But for one year, I would make the focus of my days the chosen book of that day. I wanted to find some guidance on living, I wanted to find escape and comfort and pleasure. You know what I found?
I found magic. The magic of looking between the covers of book after book and discovering exactly what I needed. Company in my sorrow, release from my guilt, encouragement in remembering the past, and lessons on how to live in my future, moving forward with hope and joy and anticipation.
Books became my therapy and it was an amazing course of treatment. I settled in and I settled down. Slowly and surely, I began to rise from my reading chair every day with renewed energy, a broader empathy, a wilder imagination. I made new friends, both on paper and in the people I met through my reading: authors, fellow book lovers in town and on the web. Friends I’d known forever, I reconnected with now and in a different way: we talked about books and in talking about books, we could talk about anything at all. Magic.
In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, I present my year of reading, and I share the magic I found. Writing the book was a time to reflect upon what I had learned in my year of reading and then to recreate, through words, the unique moments I experienced through the many different authors and genres that I had read. I was able to comprehend through my writing that I had learned lessons on how to live, lessons set within themes of sorrow, death, memory, forgiveness, intimacy, parenting, kindness, and connection. And through my writing, I strove to share those lessons, just as I had received lessons on life from other writers. It was a circle of sharing the magic, a circle of connection.
We are all struggling to figure out how to go about this business of living – and how to turn it into not a business but an adventure of joy and discovery! And I know that books – the magic of books – can get us all to that adventure. Yes, we sit still when we read but we move across centuries, zoom over seas and continents and land in places miles away. We meet and understand people we could never have imagined ourselves knowing. And through that magic of travel and experience and understanding, we find solace, we find wisdom, we find stimulation, and we find joy. I could never have become the writer that I am without having been the reader that I was – and always will be.
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Editors note. We first discovered Nina Sankovitch through a Google search on NY author Camilla Trinchieri. Nina’s review of The Price of Silence (Soho Press), showed up, and we connected. When we learned of Nina’s forthcoming book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, we invited her to write a guest post, and she kindly agreed.