Thursday, 9 January 2014

'Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading' by Nina Sankovitch

So much of this book made complete sense to me. Reading book after book, almost to the exclusion of everything else, seems a wonderful idea. Nina Sankovitch’s memoir ‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair’ is about a woman who decides to slow down her life following a number of years in full, busy flight from grieving her sister’s early death. Sankovitch’s family was a bookish one already and we get glimpses of how she and her sisters and parents would use books to fill their evenings and mark the years. When it comes time to take a healing pause in her life, it’s natural for Nina to create a reading space for herself and to take up the challenge of reading and reviewing a book a day for a full year.

It’s an almost fairy tale image – the seclusion and the seemingly-impossible task. It’s also a very alluring thing to read about – especially at the start of a new year, when I’m thinking about my own year of reading in advance, and making various plans for my own escapes from the everyday. I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘zig-zagging’ from book to book, and how one book always suggests another, and about not letting yourself choose what to read next until the very last moment, so that you never feel cluttered or encumbered. This is exactly what Nina does. Each morning she writes her review for yesterday’s book and then goes to select the next from the shelf beside her purple chair. It’s a wonderful ritual and an act of dedication to learning and convalescence.

She writes about it all very well, too. The book is teeming with the titles and characters from other books and we read with a pencil in hand, jotting down suggestions, as all addicted readers do. I like the way her family life crowds in around the secluded music room and her cat-scented chair, and sometimes holding to her schedule gets fraught (shades of ‘Julie and Julia’s frantic self-imposed targets here.) There are some intensely moving family stories and memories delved into, triggered by the books she’s reading. They weave about each other subtly in a manner reminiscent of W.G Sebald, whose ‘The Emigrants’ is discussed here.

It’s all about erudition worn lightly, and a blend of meditation and chat. Throughout, it feels like here’s a friend telling us about books we might like to try – and about the fact that, if you dig deep enough, for long enough, and if you can keep track of your thoughts as you make your reading journey – you start to see and feel connections without even trying. This book is all about the sheer exhilaration of reading and how, when you’re in that particular state, the books themselves drop away, and all the words, and it’s like taking part in some endless, complex, timeless conversation with people who are still – and always will be – here.

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