By Taylor Smith
Nina Sankovitch is the author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a memoir that centers around the year she spent reading and reviewing a new book each day. Sankovitch studied history and Spanish at Tufts University. After completing her law degree at Harvard University in 1987, she went on to practice law for ten years.
She began her project of reading one book a day three years after the death of her sister Anne-Marie in 2005. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair details that year of self-prescribed therapy in the form of reading, in which Sankovitch learns and advises readers about the reality of death, the importance of memory as a sustaining agent in times of despair, the value of words, and the significance of kindness in various forms of expression.
Arguably one of the most valuable truths Sankovitch relays is what she learns from Tolstoy – that while the consequences bestowed by another person’s actions may or may not be favorable, it is not within our ability to control the actions of others. Sankovitch concludes that the responsibility of every individual is to recognize the importance of his own actions, and with every new circumstance, to decide for himself how to respond.
First of all, could you briefly describe your background and how you came to be a part of Phi Beta Kappa, as well as any involvement you’ve had as a member?
SANKOVITCH: I have been a member since 1984, and was recommended by the wonderful history scholar Gerald Gill. He encouraged me to stay active, and I’ve been an avid reader and supporter of American Scholar and of the newsletters.
For those who haven’t yet read your book, could you explain a little bit about the 365 day project and what caused you to finally begin?
SANKOVITCH: My sister Anne-Marie died after a brief but terrible cancer; for three years I tried to fill my life up without allowing sorrow to enter, but finally, I realized I woke up every night crying. I turned to books to find out how to handle sorrow, and I discovered that there is no answer for it, but to live. To live moving forwards but looking backwards and remembering the ones we’ve loved, the great moments we’ve shared, and the beauty we’ve jointly experienced, through books, nature, conversation, travel, meals, chasing fireflies. Any memory can be a lasting moment that offers solace during times of sorrow.
You explain in your book the reasons behind why you chose to set aside a year to read a book each day, and write about all of the support you received from your husband, Jack, and your four sons. In this technology-driven, ultra-productive age, however, I imagine you must have faced a great deal of opposition from less understanding individuals. Did you have times when you doubted the nobility of your decision to embark on this journey, and how did you overcome those doubts?
SANKOVITCH: My family, my friends, and new friends I made through the year (including people who began to contact me through the website) quickly saw just how therapeutic reading was for me. I became happier, calmer, more patient, and more open. I was willing to speak with all sorts of people about what I was reading, what they were reading – because when you talk about books, you can talk about anything at all! The benefits of reading were so obvious that in fact a number of people I know began to read more and more themselves – it was a wonderful trend of reading and conversation!
In reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you discovered the phrase: “The odd moment of beauty, where time is never the same…an always within never.” What exactly “an always within never” mean to you?
SANKOVITCH: Never again to see my sister but to always have her with me, through memories and through books.
Throughout your year of reading, you also published a daily review on your website, readallday.org, for the book you read on the previous day. What made you decide to turn your experiences into a full-fledged memoir?
SANKOVITCH: My story came out in the New York Times and a number of publishers contacted me. At first, I thought the website was enough, but then I realized I could turn a book into a tribute to my sister and our family, and to a lifetime of reading. There were people out there who thought I was crazy to read a book a day – and Tolstoy and the Purple Chair proves just how healing and therapeutic was my regimen – not really a regimen, because it was always a pleasure! There was never a day when I woke up, and was unhappy about having to read a book that day. It was pure joy! And my kids were happy eating lots of pizza, and even took to housework pretty easily. We had a chart of who had to do what, when, and our house stayed habitable and happy. Of course I wasn’t working, but we settled in with one car, one activity per child, and less money – and we were a very satisfied family, eating together every night and talking about books and memories and hopes and goals … and family, including my sister. She is remembered in the most beautiful ways, and one way is in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.
In your memoir, you wrote about the vulnerability associated with allowing a friend to borrow a beloved book: “The giver of the book is not exactly ripping open her soul for a free look, but when she hands over the book with the comment that it is one of her favorites, such an admission is very close to the baring of the soul.” How does this compare to the seemingly more vulnerable position of allowing your own memoir to be read and critiqued by so many?
SANKOVITCH: GREAT question. One of the goals of my year of reading was to share what I read and experienced every day – and so I became quite used to openly discussing books and their impact on me, as well as sharing meaningful moments in my life. In turn, people began to share with me, and in the process of talking about books, sorrow, … life became a shared experience, with people across the street and even across the world, through my website.
What does your life look like since the project, and since the completion of your book?
SANKOVITCH: I’m not reading a book a day anymore, but I’m still reading a lot. After the year of reading I’ve kept up with reading a lot and making time to read. I always have a book with me. Reading is still a big part of my life; if I’m in a bad mood my husband will tell me: “I can tell you haven’t read a good book in a while. You should sit down and read.” I actually have started reading letters. I found a collection of old letters saved by a mother, written by her son while he was at Princeton from 1908 to 1912. Some letters are short, but he wrote almost every day. My oldest is off at college now, and I’m lucky if he sends me a text! Because of e-readers and things like that, some people say the book is dead, but the book is not dead. The letter is more of an endangered species, and I wanted to look at letters before they become something of the past that we just remember. I have been writing about my experiences with that and will have a new book coming out in November. It was different to go from the therapy of books to letters, a different kind of connection. I’ve had a really interesting last five years, forced by tragedy to look inwards, and learning to make these outward connections.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
SANKOVITCH: Everyone can read a little bit every day, and the benefits are so many, from better health (blood pressure lowers almost immediately) to greater understanding and tolerance of the world, to more engagement with life and more lively conversations with friends – and strangers! My year of reading was therapy for me. Reading showed me that I was not alone in my sorrow, and allowed me to see and understand many different ways of experiencing grief, as well as many different forms of resilience. Reading brought me out of myself and connected me to the world. Reading showed me that, yes, we live in cycles of joy and sorrow, but we can allow joy to prevail, by remembering our moments of past joy and using those memories (and the experiences of others) to anticipate joy in the future. Reading brought me to a place where joy is possible again, and where my sister will always be with me, in my heart and in my life. What is so gratifying to me now is how often I have heard from readers around the world that in reading my book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, they have found in my story the messages of solace, connection, and joy. It is a wonderful memorial to my sister, and a lasting testimony to the power of books.
Taylor Smith is a senior at Louisiana State University majoring in the liberal arts with a concentration in disaster science management. Louisiana State is home to the Beta of Louisiana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.