#74 review: Tolstoy and The Purple Chair

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair:

My Year of Magical Reading



236 pages

Published in June 2011 by Harper

This book counts for

My Dewey Decimal Challenge

and for

The 2011 Non-Fiction Challenge


I was fascinated by the premises of this book: after a very painful personal loss, the author decided to “escape INTO living” (from one author she quotes in the book) by diving deep into books, at the pace of ONE BOOK A DAY FOR 365 DAYS. Yes you read right, and there’s no typo here. And she also decided to post on her blog a review of the book she read the day before. She explains at the beginning how she chose her books to face that challenge.

As an avid reader, a burgeoning book blogger, 1 year old mind you, and a lover of reading challenges, I could not resist the pull of that book, even though I would never have the possibility to try such an experience – though I do read more than a book a week.

It is a great book. I enjoyed very much how Nina extracts the essence of each book she reads, either from the plot or from the characters, to see what lesson and message it offers for her own life, and that’s how she found healing in books.

Reading is sometimes associated with escapism, but as Nina quotes, it can be deeply lived not as an escape FROM LIVING, but escape INTO LIVING. This book has made me be more aware myself of what I get from each book I read for my own life.

The format of the book is absolutely not boring: she does not talk about all the books she read, though she lists them at the very end of the book, but she highlights some in connection with not only her recent loss, but also with significant events and experiences  of her whole life.

After “her year of magical reading”, she was approached for an interview, and it turned into a book. The experience is over, but Nina still reads and blogs. You can find her blog here: Read All Day


Cyril  Connolly, twentieth-century writer and critic, wrote that ‘words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living.’ That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life. I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again.


Nina Sankovitch has always been a reader. As a child, she discovered that a trip to the local bookmobile with her sisters was more exhilarating than a ride at the carnival. Books were the glue that held her immigrant family together. When Nina’s eldest sister died at the age of forty-six, Nina turned to books for comfort, escape, and introspection. In her beloved purple chair, she rediscovered the magic of such writers as Toni Morrison, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, and, of course, Leo Tolstoy. Through the connections Nina made with books and authors (and even other readers), her life changed profoundly, and in unexpected ways. Reading, it turns out, can be the ultimate therapy.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair also tells the story of the Sankovitch family: Nina’s father, who barely escaped death in Belarus during World War II; her four rambunctious children, who offer up their own book recommendations while helping out with the cooking and cleaning; and Anne-Marie, her oldest sister and idol, with whom Nina shared the pleasure of books, even in her last moments of life. In our lightning-paced culture that encourages us to seek more, bigger, and better things, Nina’s daring journey shows how we can deepen the quality of our everyday lives—if we only find the time. [Goodreads]


Nina has worked at many jobs and pursued a variety of careers, but for the past few years has been reading and reviewing hundreds and hundreds of books. From October 2008 through October 2009 Nina read and reviewed a book a day.

Her memoir of a life of reading, entitled Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, comes out in June 2011. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair not only tells the story of Nina’s life of reading but of how books helped her to cope with the death of her oldest sister.

Nina says: “My whole life I’ve loved to read. My earliest memories are of heading off to the local book mobile with my sisters Anne-Marie and Natasha to pick out our books for the week. When we arrived back home, Anne-Marie would pull me up on her lap and my mother or my father would read to us. Throughout my life, I’ve turned to books when I needed pleasure or escape, comfort or wisdom. After my sister Anne-Marie died, it was all the gifts offered by books that brought me back to a place I never thought I’d find again, a place of energy, hope, and joy.”

Nina was born in Evanston, Illinois, and is a graduate of Evanston Township High School, Tufts University, and Harvard Law School. She lives with her four children, husband, and three cats in Connecticut. [Goodreads]


“Nina Sankovitch has crafted a dazzling memoir that reminds us of the most primal function of literature—to heal, to nurture and to connect us to our truest selves.” (Thrity Umrigar, author of The Space Between us)

“[An] entertaining bibliophile’s dream…Sankovitch’s memoir speaks to the power that books can have over our daily lives. Sankovitch champions the act of reading not as an indulgence but as a necessity, and will make the perfect gift from one bookworm to another.” (Publishers Weekly)

“What Sankovitch has accomplished in her first book is not only to celebrate the transformational, even healing, powers of reading, but to give the reader a feeling of reading those books as well, through the eyes of an astute reader.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair masterfully weaves beloved and sometimes surprising books into central events in the writer’s life. There is much to learn from this moving book. Sankovitch writes with intelligence and honesty, leading us to respond in a similar manner.” (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of One Amazing Thing)

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is original, uplifting and very moving: a unique celebration of life, love and literature.” (S. J. Bolton, author of Now You See Me) [Amazon]