Thoughts On: The Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

“It is not the emotion of love, solely and independent, that is important. It is the people I love who hold the world steady for me.” – Nina Sankovitch, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

This book is part of the reason I finally came to terms with the fact that my original purpose for this blog was no longer working, and I needed to change it up drastically if I wasn’t going to abandon this blog – and perhaps even reading – for a good long while. Hearing Nina’s story of a year spent reading a book every day for a year (literally. She stops working, cuts way back on cleaning the house, and delegates responsibilities to her family, all so she can sit in her purple armchair in her study everyday, starting and finishing at least one book) made me realize that reading wasn’t supposed to be a task or a chore – even if you’re making sure to carve out time for it every day. Reading is a life-affirming action, with the capacity to take us to different places and times and, while we’re there, teach us things about the how and now we’re living. And these lessons don’t just reside within the “classics”, but within all stories. After all, humans are a story-based creature. Long live the narrative!

“As old Aunt Elinor states in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, ‘Books loved anyone who opened them, they have you security and friendship and didn’t ask anything in return; they never went away, never, not even when you treated them badly. Love, truth, beauty, wisdom, and even consolation against death. Who had said that? Someone else who loved books.'”

Anyway, Nina decides to read a book a day for a year a few years after her sister, Anne-Marie, passed away of cancer. Anne-Marie went from diagnosis to losing her battle with the disease very quickly, and although Nina spent the next few years afterwards rushing from place to place, person to person, trying to live double in order to make up for the life that Anne-Marie lost, she realizes that what she needs to do more than anything is to just. stop. running. To sit down and deal with the things she’s been feeling since Anne-Marie died: responsible, guilty for living, and, above all, heartbroken and missing her sister.

“Words of love will keep us warm, even through the last days of winter.”

Wow. Let me tell you. Reading about Nina’s journey through books was powerful in a number of ways. I didn’t recognize a single book title she mentions, but she made each one of them seem like a work of art, and there have been quite a few titles added to me Immediately To Be Read book pile (as opposed to my Read Soon pile or my Want To Read When I Have The Chance Between Other Books pile). But there is more to it than that. The way Nina writes about losing Anne-Marie, the pain and the feelings of guilt because she remains and Anne-Marie is gone, it was hard to read. It brought to mind thoughts of what it will be like to one day lose my mother, an inevitability that I don’t dwell on, but that frightens me more than any other possible event. There were some passages that were almost too hard to get through – moments when Nina describes the last few days she spent with Anne-Marie, both of them knowing that there wouldn’t be countless hours left or endless time to say what needed to be said. It was agonizing, but it was beautiful.

“Anne-Marie is defined by everything that she was to me…she will continue to shape me, direct me, and advise me. She pulled me toward my year of reading a books a day, spurring me on with our shared love of books and my desire to read all the volumes upon volumes that we might have read together. I have learned, through books, to hold on to my memories of all the beautiful moments and people in my life, as I need those memories to help me through difficult times.”

The second thing I loved most about Sankovitch’s writing is her ability to create multifaceted, deep, sensory-filled scenes. When she writes reflecting on her summers as a child, it’s enough to make me picture similar days of my own, and although our childhoods were spent years and miles apart, there is a kind of nostalgic longing and romanticism about remembering. Part of my love for these sections may come from the fact that, having recently graduated, and with my college town buzzing with impending summer graduation (I was a winter grad), its getting easier and easier to sink in to that year-end reminiscing that always seems to accompany the warmer weather this time of the year. Take this passage, which was one of the ones I’ve gone back to re-read about a dozen times in just a day or two:

“I remembered lying in bed at night with the windows open to let in the warm summer air. From the bed, I could hear the traffic on Gold Road and the radio playing on the neighbor’s porch. I smelled the dankness of freshly turned earth in our garden, the sweet scent our our grass, and the smoky smell of barbecues. The smells and sounds were like an invitation to me, a summons to run out and join the universe. I was older then, beyond hide-and-seek games and waiting for the ice-cream truck, but I still believed my future was limitless. I knew that the breeze coming in from the window was full of promises of adventure and love and fun, promises just waiting to be fulfilled.”

My sounds may have been railroad tracks and my sister and her friends’ hushed quiet conversation drifting up from our deck, but I know those smells she’s talking about, and I know that breeze. And the best part is, every now and then I still get that feeling of limitlessness. So damn, Nina. Way to hit that one, and just about every other not in this book, right on the head.

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