Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a book by Nina Sankovitch, whose blog Read All Day began when she decided to read a book a day for an entire year. So, it is a book about a book blog, and this is a blog about it. And yes, I mainly phrased it that way for my own amusement — I find joy in both a well-turned phrase, and a deliberately silly manipulation of words.

But I digress.

Let me begin by saying that this book was loaned to me by a customer at my shop, who grew up with the author’s husband right here in my hometown. It was just released this year, and being primarily a used and out of print dealer, it had not yet made its way onto my radar. I devoured it this morning, and straight away fired off an e-mail to the author through her website. I feel that I have found a kindred spirit, someone whose relationship with books is a mirror for mine, and who shares the same sort of understanding in regards to the power of books to help us remember, to inform our thoughts, and to shape our futures.

She begins in a very personal way, honestly portraying her reactions to her sister’s death from cancer. She shows us how this led her to commit to a book a day for an entire year. She explains the power she believes books have, and how she hopes to use that power to heal herself, to make herself understand her place in life — as she puts it, “Why do I deserve to live?” The lessons she learns through literature serve as affirmations for her, and not in an empty pat-on-the-back sort of way — she applies heartfelt passages from works of fiction to real situations in her life, and arrives at complex realizations that are entirely personal. I have always believe this is part of the magic of books — they are marvelously versatile tools, in that their contents can be repurposed for the use of countless readers.

What struck me early on was her introduction of a purple chair, smelling of cat urine, and nominated for a trip to the dumpster. She describes the nobility of the chair before it was ‘marked’ by the cat, and explains her loyalty to that nobility. She faithfully deodorizes the chair for a year, the odor fades, and it reclaims its place. Whether she intended it as such or not, I took this as an analogy about books. Old books, which often look a bit ragged around the edges, and perhaps smell of smoke or basement, or routinely discarded as having lost their luster. The author’s recognition that the chair holds important significance (she relates it to several important life events) mirrors my recognition of the significance of books. To me, they act as conduits of memory. They are physical representations of intellectual and emotional turning points in my life. I remember the first time I read The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl… the list could go on for pages. I remember what these books meant to me then, and that informs and defines what these books mean to me now. They were building blocks for the current me.

I particularly enjoy the author’s description of her commitment to the year ahead: “I was ready — ready to sit down in my purple chair and read. For years, books had offered me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotonies and frustrations. I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience. Books would give me all that, and more… I was trusting in books to answer the relentless question of why I deserved to live. And of how I should live. My year of reading would be my escape back into life.”

I think this is important, because it explodes the widely held belief that books are an escape from life. Really, books are points of entry into areas of life, be they thoughts, emotions, or experiences, that we may not otherwise have explored.

I could provide a more comprehensive review, with insights into the different books the author read and what I think of her take on each… I believe, though, that doing so will give readers of this blog the sense that they get the point, and don’t need to read it for themselves. The opposite, of course, is true about this book and most others. I would urge every bookseller to add this to the inventory, every book lover to add it to the home library, and everyone skeptical of the power of books to add it to their list of things to try. An added bonus: at the end is a list of all 365 books the author read, so once you’re finished you can dive right into another great book.

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Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:26 AM  Leave a Comment  
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