Book Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Tosltoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch
The subtitle of this book is: My Year of Magical Reading. A book about a woman who spent a year reading a book a day, that appeals to all readers, not?

It certainly appealed to me, and Harper sent me a review copy (ARC).

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: What it is about

This book is the memoir of Nina Sankovitch relating how she spent a year reading a book a day. As a stay-at-home mother, she had or made the time to read one book every single day for a year, and write a review of it on her website.

Three years before, her sister Anne-Marie had died at 46 years’ of age of an illness. Nina was very close to her and for the following years ran around like a headless chicken trying to cram into her own life as much as she could. After those three years she was exhausted and decided a year of reading, with as few obligations as possible, would be useful to her.

So she starts reading and finds wisdom and comfort in books and during the year she learns a lot about herself and learns to cope with the loss of her sister.

The book is divided into chapters, all with a particular theme in which the author describes what insights she gained from certain books about the particular theme (e. g., love, family, war, forgiveness, etc.). While she doesn’t describe all 365 books she read (there is a list at the back, though), she uses the books to explain events in her life and to gain an understanding about how she should continue living her own life, with her sister gone.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: What I thought

It wasn’t as good as I had hoped: A year of reading! That had to be interesting. But when you think about it, how could it be interesting to for a reader to read a book about just that?

So, the book is filled with biographical information about the author, her family, and her parents’ life in Europe (they are both immigrants to the US who arrived some time after the second World War).

I have a few issues with the book. Not large ones, but even so:

I could not understand the author’s justification for spending a whole year reading. I know I don’t do all that much myself (I’m not working, I write a blog post every day, I read an average of a book every two days) but I still see reading as something I do when I’m finished with my chores and other activities. How this could be one’s main task for a year? I missed that point, obviously.

Then the idea that you could find wisdom in books. I can see that this may be true sometimes, but Sankovitch read random books from all types of authors. I don’t know that that was the best way to achieve it.

Also, I found Sankovitch language a little too poetic for my liking. I’m quite a down to earth person, and if I manage to read between the lines in a book, I’m delighted, because that doesn’t happen very often. Sankovitch finds all kinds of meanings in books that I would never find (but I know other people might) and so I didn’t feel connected with her in that way.

And finally, while the memories about her and her family’s past were interesting, they were not hugely interesting or special, to me, at least. They were just the memories of some person I’d never heard of.

However, I did enjoy the book and I think some people might actually find my objections good reasons to read the book.

I got this book: free from Harper publishers (ARC)

I read this in: English, the original language

Number of pages: 240 (with the list of books that Sankovitch read)

First published: 2011 (June)

Genre: memoir, books about books

Finally: Do you have that, when you see a list of books, you check how many of those you have read, and you wonder if this is a list that you should try and read all, yourself? I had that! I saw Sankovitch’ list and counted only 25 (of the 365) books that I had read, although many of the other authors I had read, just not the particular books in the list. I think we do like similar books, in general.

About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

51 Responses to Book Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

  1. “Do you have that, when you see a list of books, you check how many of those you have read, and you wonder if this is a list that you should try and read all, yourself?”
    Always, almost compulsively. Could you possibly publish Sankovitch’s list here so that I can give in to my compulsion and check how many of her books I have read?

  2. Cindy says:

    I don’t understand it, a book every day? Where is the leisure in that, it would just become a chore. BTW, I read from 1.30 am – 5.30am this morning, on p 225 of The Bed I Made. Suspense.

  3. Miel et Lait says:

    I’m reading this, too. I like the idea that reading was something she shared with her sister before her sister died, so she was reading to stay connected to her sister. But, I don’t understand why or how she decided “a book a day” was necessary.

    I *like* the book, but I don’t *love* the book. I’m not a huge fan of memoirs, to be honest, I haven’t had much luck in reading them.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Miel, I sometimes like memoirs, but it depends. I don’t actually care a bit about celebrities, so their memoirs aren’t for me. In the case of “normal” people, there should be something special that makes it worthwhile to read the memoir. In this case, I thought it wasn’t quite special enough. It was interesting, but maybe not quite enough.

  4. winstonsdad says:

    I remeber her blog about this ,it was feature in New york times ,I admire her I try for hundered pages a day and about 130 books a year and have read between 80 and 130 a year for most my adult life ,but 365 is a great total ,didn’t know she’d done a book about it ,may pass book as read lot of reviews at time at her read all day website ,which you don’t mention and has list of books she read for person asking for list ,I love checking of list ,all the best stu

    • Leeswammes says:

      How nice you know this author from her blog, Stu! The book doesn’t actually have any book reviews in although she does describe some of the books she’s read. I think the book probably is quite nice as an accompaniment to the blog – you won’t find much overlap, I suspect.

      I must admit I didn’t check out her website… but I checked it now (thanks, Stu) and the list is here….

  5. Carol Wong says:

    I usually love memoirs, can’t stomach celebrity memoirs though. I always pick the ones that have extra meaning for me. She did limit the size of the book so that it was possible to read a book a day, but I like to read chunkters once in a while. I would real miss reading a history and historical fiction which are usually long.

    I didn’t like the idea of the reading a book a day as the focus. I wonder if the children felt left out of her life.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Well, I wondered that too, Carol. She doesn’t mention too much about them, but she does say that e.g., the Christmas decorations were less ornate as other years, because she’d spend less time on them. That sort of thing. I don’t know. I think it *is* good for children to see their mother as an individual with her own needs and her own need for privacy so it could have worked out positive for them. Maybe they did a bit more in the house (not sure) which would make them more independent.

  6. Nadine Nys says:

    I don’t think I ever read a memoir, so I am not really tempted to read this book. I checked the list of books, and I only read 5 of them.

    • Leeswammes says:

      That’s very few, Nadine, I thought my 25 was rather paltry. Oh well, since when is Sankovitch a standard for good reading? There are so, so, many books in the world, that a larger overlap would be quite coincidental.

  7. Corri says:

    Interesting idea that you would focus just on reading for a whole year! I could get into that I think, but then I am envious of people who seem to have so much time to read: I look forward to my holiday when I will spend lots of time reading by the pool or on the beach; that is, outside of lazing around, swimming, having fun with granddaughter and having meals with family and a thousand other things 🙂 It’s the purpose of a holiday I always think, coming back and counting the books you’ve managed to read.
    I’m afraid I’d never hear of Sankovitch, let alone his list of books, but like you I’m always surprised that however much I read I never seem to be reading what’s on other people’s lists! Shows how much there is to read and that you can never read it all. That’s a nice thought actually – plenty more to look forward to. I’ll check out this Sankovitch though.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Corri, well, some people have more time than others. I could probably read a book per day but I wouldn’t feel good about it. I would think that I was neglecting a lot of other aspects of my life and feel guilty about that.

      Yes, I also love to take lots of books on holiday – always too many, but you-never-know!

  8. That’s interesting as when I read the blurb I, too, thought I would love a book like this but I really think I would have exactly the same issues as you did.

    I’m not one of these people who looks for meanings in books either; I never think “i wonder what the author meant by this or that” – all I think is “whodunnit?” 😉

    How can anyone read a book a day also? OK so she doesn’t work but still, wouldn’t that end up being a chore rather than relaxing which sort of defeats the object really.

    I usually manage a paltry 8-100 per year but I do have a job so…

  9. It has such a great title, so sorry it was a let down when you read it! I guess I’ll give it a miss too!

    New follower here just hopping by to say hello!

    If you feel like it, maybe you could stop by my blog – I’m taking part in a massive Small Blogs, Big Giveaways at the moment (winner gets 16 books!) and also have an EU giveaway of Dead Reckoning happening!

    Beth @ A little sun shy

    • Leeswammes says:

      Thanks for stopping by, A little sun shy. And thanks for becoming a new follower, how nice! I will definitely have a look at your blog too.

  10. Lisa says:

    Your number one problem with the book is exactly what I was thinking of as I read your review. She’s a stay at home mom who has time to read a book a day? I was a stay at home mom for many years and I was lucky to find time to read a magazine article a day! I’m with you, I can’t imagine it could be done and still have time for everything else that you absolutely have to deal with on a daily basis.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Thanks for your reply, Lisa. I think the author did cut a lot of corners with regard to her family life, although some days she didn’t start reading until the evening and then had to finish before midnight.

  11. Suzanne says:

    Although the idea of it is definitely appealing, I don’t know that I’d be able to be that disciplined and read a book a day for an entire year. It’s an interesting way to deal with the blows life throws you, though.

    Upon first sight of the book, I thought it would be a must read for me; but based on your review I think I’ll wait.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Suzanne, you have to be really disciplined, because it’s not 365 books a year, no, it’s exactly one per day. Finish the book by midnight latest and a new book the next day.

      It appeals to me too, but it’s too strict for me. What if you don’t feel like reading? Or the family go do lots of fun things, but no, you have to finish your book?

  12. Leslie says:

    I read for pleasure and, not being the fastest reader in the world, would find pushing through a book a day to be work. Unless of course it was an awesome book, but there just aren’t that many of those.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Leslie, the author only read books of about 300 pages or less, but even so, I would find it a struggle to do every day. Some day you just want to do other things, don’t you?

  13. Trish says:

    It’s such a beautiful cover but I’m strangely turned off by it. A book a day? I know it’s all about priorities, but I can’t imagine when one would find the time to read that much (unless she’s a fast reader) without ignoring your child or other things a bit. Skimming through the comments it seems I’m not the only one feeling this way (though there are plenty of book bloggers who read this much!).

    • Leeswammes says:

      Trish, she did read only books of 300 pages or less. But she didn’t read YA type of books. She read the sort of books that I normally read, which are not often fast reads (sometimes, but not a lot of the time). So yes, it takes long…

  14. I really did like Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. I think the point about Nina’s decision is that she had tried completely immersing herself in “life”, never giving herself time to think, as a way of getting over her sister’s death and the process failed her. Possibly to save her own sanity, not to mention the well being of her family, she turned to the opposite extreme – taking a year “off” life. There are many ways she could have done this: sail round the world, climb a few mountains but instead she turned to one of her oldest loves – books. I liked the book because it was well written and moving and, unusually, an account of an ordinary woman going on an extraordinary journey.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Sharon, thanks for commenting. I did understand that Nina wanted to stop running around and not giving herself time to think, but in my mind reading is also a form of escape. Or it can be. Personally, I think a year of climbing mountains or cycling 50 miles a day would have been a better way to deal with things as it gives time to think. Reading time is not necessarily thinking time. But in her case, it obviously was, because at the end of the year, she comes out much better than she went in.

      It was definitely well written. I didn’t dislike the book, but it wasn’t as good as I was expecting it to be.

  15. Zee says:

    I just wonder what kind of justice you can give to the books when you read that many books in one go. I admit, there are days when I read a book or two in a day. But I often find that when I read a book that has particular meaning, that touches me in a particular way, I need a day or two of downtime before I can throw myself into another book.

    I also have to agree with other commentators, I think this still sounds like a chore. Not necessarily an escape.

    • Leeswammes says:

      That’s a good point, Zee and I guess the answer is “not much”. On the other hand, she wasn’t reading continuously, but only for about 4 hours a day. So there was probably time to let the book sink in (a bit). I myself am a chain-reader: I finish one book, then open the next one straight away. But if the previous book was good enough, I will keep thinking about it for a while. For instance, I read “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett two books ago, but I’m still thinking about it, a bit. The book after that I haven’t given much thought anymore.

  16. There was never, ever a day in my year of reading that the book became a chore — it was always a pleasure that I savored. I can read 70 pages/hour very comfortably. In the evening at dinner I always shared with my children what I’d read during the day and we had lively and wonderful conversations. True, my kids ate more pizza that year than we normally do, our house was dustier, and they had additional chores of cleaning up after dinner and laundry (chores they continue with today) but our house during that year of reading was peaceful, energized, and happy. In some books I found wisdom, in some escape, in some humor, in some comfort, and in some all four! I was reading not only for myself but for my children, to bring back our “palmy days” of hope and joy. The year my sister died, my sister in law also died (three weeks later) and there were a number of other deaths close to our family. I took on my reading project to remind all of us of all the beauty in the world and that our futures hold potent possibilities, that we “live in wonder, blaze in a cycle of passion and apprehension”, and sorrow and joy, but that joy ultimately can prevail. My book is about grief but also about resilience and recovery. How one person lives determines how she will be always remembered — and always live on, as my sister does, in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my children.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Nina, thank you for stopping by and explaining. I can see from your comment that life actually was more peaceful for your children, as you weren’t running around trying to get all kinds of things done anymore.

      As I mentioned in an earlier comment on this blogpost, it’s not bad at all for kids to have a few more chores! I’m still amazed that you didn’t ever find it a chore to be reading – just must have made a very good selection of books. I hope you still find pleasure in reading books, although the release of your own book must mean things are more busy now. Good luck with the book – it was interesting to read about your year of reading.

  17. Vasilly says:

    J, I had a lot of the same objections to this book that you did. I thought it was just me. I understood why she loved reading so much but I couldn’t make that connection to why she decided to read a book a day. I also thought it would be more about books than grief. Oh well. 😉

  18. Young1 says:

    Sounds like it was most definitely a book not to be judged by its cover! The cover is quite inviting and so is the synopsis but reading about reading?!

    Hope you have a great week 😀

  19. Jennifer O. says:

    I LOVE reading, and I still don’t think I’d be able to do it for a week straight. Maybe a few days, but nope–not even a week. The limbs start to atrophy. I get sick of myself. The house is in shambles. I’m paralyzed by the mess. Nope…can’t see myself doing it and coming out alive.

    Reading is a wonderful luxury that should be done after the things of Life are tended to. Not to escape from them.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Jennifer, the author didn’t read full-time! She read a book per day which amounted to about 4 hours of reading time. So there was still a lot of time for the other things of life. 🙂

  20. It’s hard not to do that with book lists, but it can be disheartening. I don’t like to beat myself up about which books I have read.

    Possibly a silly question, but was it really exactly one book per day? Were they all about the same length? Because Animal Farm takes maybe two hours to read but War and Peace would require several days, surely.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Kate, yes, it was not an average of one book per day, but exactly one book was read every day. They were usually around 300 pages (or less) so it would take her about 4 hours per day to read the book. Then the next morning she would write a review (for her website, still in existence) and start with the next book. Not a full-time task.

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  22. Els says:

    Thanks for sending me the link, had read your blogpost before and came upon this book again. It’s on my to read-list now and I can’t imagine how someone can write about reading 365 books in 240 pages?? Like you, I will see how many of the mentioned books I have read. Will let you know when I have read the book.

  23. Pingback: Nina Sankovitch – ‘Een boek per dag’ – verslag van een jaar vol boeken | Boeken over Boeken

  24. stacybuckeye says:

    I actually think that a book a day is a cool goal, as long as most of the books were meaningful to you. I do understand your point about it seeming like an almost frivilous? goal. As a stay at home mom to a 1 and half year old I barely find the time to finish a book a week!

    • Leeswammes says:

      Stacey, it’s frivious but also plain boring and stressful! I’ve read a book a day for the last 4 days and I can’t say I’m enjoying it. I want to read a book when I want it (which is often enough) and not worry about not being able to finish it before bed time. 🙂

  25. Pingback: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch | Iris on Books

  26. Ruth says:

    I like to enjoy the “after” of a book i just read……internalize not to decipher the author’s motives necessarily, but to think about the content, story line, information, characters, etc. and the nuances of really good writing……before delving into another work. I can’t see that happening with a book a day.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Ruth, I agree, that cannot happen too much. Of course she writes a review of each book at the end of the day or the next morning, but that’s it. I’m not an After person myself. Book finished? Next please! 🙂

  27. Pingback: Nina Sankovitch – ‘Een boek per dag’ – verslag van een jaar vol boeken

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