Here's a must-read title for anyone who loves books -- and thinks that the time has come to get vocal about that love, to share it with others, to take it new places, instead of accepting the tired drone of doom-and-gloom prognostication from certain elements in New York publishing circles:
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch, a first-time author.
Sankovitch, whose name I first saw here at Huffington Post Books, found herself in a deep funk after her sister died young from cancer. Who can blame her?
The twist is what she chose to do with her grief: She funneled it into a daffy, crazy notion, namely, that every day for a year she would read a book and post an online review of that book all in real time. Plenty of people have had such notions. Sankovitch really did it -- with an assist from her obviously patient husband Jack.
The book that emerges from this year of heavy reading is as memorable for its depiction of the progression of Sankovitch's grief as for her thoughts on individual books she has read. "My year of reading one book a day was my year in a sanatorium," she writes. "It was my year away from the unhealthy air of anger and grief with which I'd filled my life. It was an escape into the healing breezes of hills of books."
For me at least the passages that tend to lift off the page most consistently are those in which she writes about her sisters and her parents -- especially her accounts of her father's wartime experiences. She uses these evocations to pull into focus her larger theme of book love as something boundary-busting and transformative, a larger force than love of any one book or any one author.
"As Nick Hornby counseled me, way back in February, in his book Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, 'One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good,'" she writes, then adds: "But all the books I read, the hard ones to work through and the easy ones to devour, were doing me good, lots of good. And bringing me pleasure, lots of pleasure."
I applaud Sankovitch for going for it on book-reading in a way so few people do. I happen to think that books matter more than ever in the Age of Twitter with attention spans forever being sliced and diced every which way; books are our one chance to fill out our thinking -- and our feeling -- in a relaxed and thorough way that might actually stay with us for years or decades, not milliseconds.
I think instead of sitting around and debating whether books are dying, or being marginalized, people who love book-reading ought to look at changing their lives and encouraging book-reading and book-buying in ways large and small. Start a book group! Give nothing but books as gifts! Become a regular here at Huffington Post Books, or sign up at Goodreads.com. Watch less dumb TV, spend less time at Facebook, sleep less -- time can always be found.
Authors like Sankovitch and my friend Sara Nelson, whose So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading I also thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, are starting and deepening a conversation about books -- and that's a conversation we as a culture need to have deepened.
Book by book my tastes line up more with Sara Nelson, I think. Sankovitch read a book by Carl Hiaasen, one of my favorite writers, and dismissed him breezily with some talk about Florida weather -- when to me he's our answer to Mark Twain, a first-rate satirist with important points to make. But I didn't mind at all feeling like I was having some disagreements with Sankovitch; that's all part of starting a conversation.
Most of all I am thankful to get glimpses into the worlds of many writers I have not yet read. Edith Wharton, for example.
"The Touchstone is about morality and identity, as are all of Wharton's books," Sankovitch writes.
"She is the master of pulling back the curtains of propriety and custom to reveal the duality of life, the struggle between publicly identifying -- 'finding' -- oneself and deliberately hiding what is private or shameful in an effort to bolster respectability, wealth, and most important, security. Wharton enveloped her insights on human nature within page-turning plots of love, intrigue, and betrayal."
Sounds pretty interesting. I might have to go read me some Wharton -- and many of the others covered here.
So if you love books, give this one a shot -- or give it as a gift. You can also follow Sankovitch's blog, if you want to sample her writing on books.