Bibliotherapy and Nina Sankovitch’s “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair”

Bibliotherapy for loss in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

I’ve been trying to get hold of this book for so long. Whilst my blog narrates my journey away from anxiety through hefty reading, Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading shows the “all-encompassing power and delight of reading”. Therefore, it seemed destined for me to read this book. The author and I both have a soft spot for Tolstoy too. In the end, I ordered it from the bookshop I work at (the sensible thing to do), and collected it on my shift two days later.

I can’t think of a non-fiction book that’s more “typically me”: it narrates Nina Sankovitch’s search for recuperation and guidance through books, following her sister’s death. The author doesn’t just read the odd book, she goes rather wild and reads one a day for a year. When I told my boyfriend about this book, he said that it sounded a bit depressing. I hadn’t thought about this, but truth be told, it wasn’t gloomy at all. Yes, the book was derived from emotional circumstances, but it was compiled to hold inspiration and hope; for both author and reader.

One of the novel’s epigraphs resounded particularly with me:

“A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors.” Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit

Like Sankovitch and Henry Ward Beecher, I treat books as my “multitude of counsellors”. In fact, I’ve been wondering whether to resume therapy or not upon going back to university. Yes, I probably need more professional help for various issues, particularly as my anxiety and agoraphobic tendencies worsen when I’m at university. But can I help myself as much with good books, alternative therapies and relaxation? Medication is a no-go option for me, that’s for sure.

Sankovitch uses literature to create her personal sanatorium. Sanatorium: I love that word (minus all associations of illness). It connotes a place of blue skies, nature and pure air in my mind. My personal sanatorium would, of course, be half-library, allowing me to read and reflect upon Wordsworth’s spring scenes, García Márquez’s descriptions of relationships, and all you can learn from my favourite multitude of Russians. Dostoevsky doesn’t correlate too finely with my image of a sanatorium, however.

The literary haven that the author describes contains favourite books of mine: Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon and Dickens’s Christmas short stories, for instance. Yet there’s also those alien to my reading history. I’d like to read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, as I would sympathise with the protagonist who “wants to be left in peace to secretly enjoy the pleasure and comfort that books, music, art, and good food bring her”. I’d like to read Saramago’s Death With Interruptions because I so enjoyed Blindness.

Sankovitch’s literary hiatus directs her towards kindness after reading Plato, and she receives added faith in life after reading Julian Barnes’s assurance that there is always the “promise of a new novel or a new friend”. A Celibate Season by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard gets her sex life back on track. Sankovitch even mentions having a curry with an ex-Spanish lover of hers in Tunbridge Wells, my nearest town, and so I appreciate her even more highly now.

I’ll be delving back into this lovely volume of literary esteem again soon, I’m certain. Nina has a blog, appropriately named Read All Day, but I heavily recommend buying her book. It’s the perfect way to get your own literary odyssey under way.

Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.