From October 2008 through October 2009, Nina Sankovitch read a book a day and wrote a review of each, which she posted on her website. Sankovitch created “The 365 Project” as a way to come to terms with the death of her older sister, Anne-Marie, and chronicled it in the best-selling “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading” (Harper, 2011). She will speak on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at the 37th Annual Interfaith Sukkot Luncheon at Congregation Beth El in Fairfield.
A native of Evanston, Ill., Sankovitch is the daughter of immigrants, her mother from Belgium and her father from Belarus. She earned an undergraduate degree from Tufts University and a law degree from Harvard Law School. She practiced in a large New York firm for one year before joining the Natural Resources Defense Council as a coastal attorney. After having four children, she worked as a consultant to The Nathan Cummings Foundation, and later as executive director of Save the Sound in Norwalk. She lives in Westport.
Sankovitch spoke with the Ledger about The 365 Project.
Why did you choose to honor your sister with a year of reading?
A: One of the first questions I faced after my sister died was how to go on living without her. And my initial answer to that question was to try to live double, for my sister and for me. I answered the question of how to live by living as fast as I could, cramming in everything I could, both for my sister and for myself, before it was too late. I signed up for volunteer positions, I said “yes” to anyone who asked for a moment of my time, I tried to be there for every member of my family, whenever and wherever they needed me. But after three years of ever-increasing activities, commitments, and promises, I realized I was not living a great life. I was still grieving, hurting, lost, and angry. And I wasn’t living, I was racing away from guilt, pain, anger, sadness. Guilt because I was alive. Pain and anger because my sister was gone. Sadness because I could not bring her back.
I needed to find a way to live for my sister, but not as an attempt to substitute my living for what she lost. I needed to live a life worth being alive for – a life she would have wanted for herself and for me. I could no longer have her wisdom or humor to guide me but I could turn to a trusted source: books. Anne-Marie and I both loved books, and had shared them back and forth throughout our lives. I would keep on reading for both of us, and to discover how to live without her.
You may be aware of the Jewish custom of Kaddish, the prayer a mourner recites every day for a year after a loved one dies. One purpose of Kaddish is to help the mourner get over the death. Did your year of reading serve as a sort of Kaddish?
A: Yes, absolutely. What is interesting is that I have now met so many people who, like me, turned to books when faced with an overwhelming sorrow or depression or anxiety, and books helped them find their way again. Not self-help books, per se, but novels and biographies and memoirs that allowed these readers to understand that we are not alone, that even though we are unique in our experiences, our emotions are universal. And of course, we readers find escape in reading, but as I quote Cyril Connolly in my book, not escape from life, but into life. Books show us that we are not alone in our questions, fears, and sorrows, and that joy can be found at all stages of life, and in so many different ways.
Were the books especially significant to you and/or your sister?
A: I had rules for my year of reading, that I could not read any author twice or read a book I had read before. And so I discovered whole new sections of the library where I had never been before. I was always a huge novel and mystery reader but I began to explore biographies and histories and science fiction and essays. It was a wonderful year of discovery.
Did you discover a favorite book?
A: During my year of reading I kept a list on my website of “Great Books” that really moved me or inspired me or entertained me. After reading 365 books, my list of Great Books numbered over ninety. I cannot pick out one book that stood out as a favorite, because so many books were different in how I loved them: I loved Colin Channer’s “Waiting in Vain” for its portrayal of Jamaica; I loved “The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz” by Almudena Solana for its wise and wondering heroine; I loved Donna Leon’s “Wilful Misbeviour” because I love Venice; I loved Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn” for its quiet truths about love and choices. I loved every single book I talk about in “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” for what I found in each of them.
What defines a great book for me is one in which the writer presents freely, honestly, and bravely a story about a specific event or person or landscape and makes me care, so much, about that story; a great book records the changes wrought inwardly by outside events; a great book is when I can feel the author’s desire to connect through words my life with the lives in the book; a great book is one I cannot stop thinking about after finishing the last page. A great book is one I want to share with everyone I know: “Read this!”
Now that you’re finished with your tribute, do you feel that it did what you’d hoped it would do?
A: Yes, I found my way back to living, I realized I would always have my sister in my life – and that with her in my thoughts and memories I can move forward in anticipation of future joys and discoveries. We live in cycles of joy and sorrow, but we can allow joy to prevail if we remain open-minded and open-hearted.
Do you continue to do something to honor your sister?
A: My book, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair,” was written to honor my sister, and every talk I give about the book is a way of passing on everything I learned in my year of reading, and also a way of sharing everything that Anne-Marie was to me – sister, friend, fellow book-lover – with new people in my life. Through my year of reading, I came to understand how reading connects me to so many other people, and in those connections I honor my sister. I may read alone but in that reading I am in great company, both of my sister and of everyone out there reading books. I remember riding in a cab with a Nigerian driver during my year of reading. He and I began to discuss Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emechata, two writers I had just read. We had a great time talking and when the ride was over, we shook hands good-bye. Two strangers, from opposite sides of the world, and we connected over books. Those connections forged by reading have made me more addicted to reading than ever. And through that addiction to reading, I honor my sister.
For more information on Nina Sankovich’s talk call (203) 374-5544 or (203) 268-8108