Do We Need a Reading Gimmick? Books About Years of Reading & Why We Love Them

nina sankovitch TolstoyAndThePurpleChair3 Do we need reading gimmicks?  Every book website has one.  At Goodreads, you can participate in the 2016 Reading Challenge  by filling in the number of books you want to read.  At The Millions, there is a Proust Book Club (but three months into it, the writer/leader is still on Swann’s Way). At the Modern Mrs. Darcy, the 2016 book challenge might as well be called “Read Whatever You Want”:  its 12 categories include “a book you’ve meant to read for a long time” and “a book published this year.”

Books, too, are often organized around gimmicks, and I don’t mean this is a bad thing.  I am reading a fascinating reading memoir, Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair:  My Year of Magical Reading.  After her sister Anne-Marie’s death from cancer, Sankovitch spent three years in constant motion instead of mourning, coaching her son’s soccer team, leading a PTA committee, and following a strict fitness regime.   Finally she was exhausted:  she realized she needed to sit still to grieve.  And so she spent a year reading one book a day and blogging about the experience.  It helped her with the grieving process.

Sankovitch, a former lawyer, was so busy at home raising four children that many friends thought she’d quit the project.  She worked while the children were in school or between chores.   In her year of  a book a day, she read shorter books than usual, but since she could read 300 pages in four hours, she still had one up on most of us. (Oh,  I wish I could read that fast!)  She chose books at the library by the width of the cover:   one inch equals about 250-300 pages  She knew she had to spend an average of six hours a day reading and writing. The writing took her longer than the reading.   I think many of us can relate to her thoughts on keeping up her blog.

Just a few days’ experience of writing reviews had shown me that a review had no definite time allotment.  It could take me half an hour or five hours, depending on how much the book meant to me and how easy or hard it was for me to translate what the book meant into words on my computer screen.  I averaged out the reviewing time to about two hours and planned accordingly.

Nina Sankovitch VermeerNina_10

Nina Sankovitch

Sankovitch may not be a great critic, but she is a great common reader, and perhaps that is more important.   I very much enjoy her interweaving of memoir with her reviews.  And her recommendations are fascinating:  Muriel Barbery’s The Elegnace of the Hedghog, Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, José Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons, and Elizabeth Maguire’s The Open Door, a fictionalized biography of Constance Fennimore Woolson.  I am looking forward to reading some of the books on this list

Other writers, too, have organized their books around reading gimmicks.  You’re on your own with the first three on the list, but I have read and can recommend Denby’s.

  1. Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading.  This retired professor chose a shelf of fiction at the New York Society Library and read her way through it.
  2. Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously.  Before his 40th birthday, he wanted to catch up on classics he’d never read.  He starts with Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
  3. Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers,  inspired by her year-long journey through a book from every country in the world.  Her blog is  called A Year of Reading the World.
  4. David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. He returned to Columbia University to rediscover the classics.

Let me know your favorite books about reading, or reading projects!

8 thoughts on “Do We Need a Reading Gimmick? Books About Years of Reading & Why We Love Them

  1. I like the sound of Sankovitch’s book! I think these gimmicks can be a bit hit and miss but hers sounds great as it has a real connection to her life.


    • Yes, parts are very moving. She finds so much in books that her sister would have appreciated. The books do become very connected to her life. It’s fascinating.


  2. I do love books about books – I think perhaps they make me feel less guilty about all the reading I do and books I own. Plus they often come up with intriguing sounding titles I’ve not heard of. I could manage a book a day (and I have been doing so over the Easter break) but I empathise with Sankovitch – it’s the reviewing that takes the time!


  3. Why Tolstoy and the purple chair? Maybe she was sitting in a purple chair to read? did she read much Tolstoy? (So many taken from us, losing their lives to this spreading plague-disaster cancer and few doing anything fundamental and without funds (these all go to techniques which prolong life and make money for drug companies and surgeons and their staffs.)

    My favorite book about reading is Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone I’m Reading. I’ve wrote a blog on it long ago. Its subtitle is Finding and Losing Myself in Books. The title just popped into my mind because I loved most of the books she loves in her inward journey. Honest a lot of the more literary critical books are about the author find and losing him or herself in books but it’s not the organizing story. Rebecca Mead’s book on Middlemarch was that. Sometimes the author is or pretends to be traveling to the spot which the books plot: so Michael Gorra’s book on the Portrait of a Lady called The Portrait of a Novel (I loved this one too).

    People like to dream of themselves spending all the livelong day reading meaningfully.



    • Ellen, the purple chair is an old chair that has been so stained her husband wants to throw it out. She has it reupholstered and must spray it daily because a cat has peed on it! I am not yet to the point where she reads Tolstoy, but she did mention early on that she read something very short by him.

      I love Maureen Corrigan’s book, and I started Mead’s but didn’t finish. I do feel I should go back to it. Strangely, I was looking for something more critical, and hers was more a journey. I do love Eliot so much.


  4. I don’t very much like gimmicks myself. Very often,a book leads me to another book, or a film will lead me to a book, then to another, and when I look back I can see the pattern of my reading. For instance, watching “Mr Selfridge” sent me to “The Bucanneers” (spelling ?) and to listening to “The Age of Innocence”, which sent me back to the film by Scorsese, and to Henry James, then to Toibin’s “The Master” and Lodge’s “Author, Author!”, etc.
    But reading about readers who read books I know or don’t know is like entering Borges’ imaginary libraries and labyrinths. Bliss.
    However, I re-read recently “Howard’s End is on the Landing” by Susan Hill but her snugness and complacency somewhat irritated me. I remember, the first time, I wanted to throw the book across the room at some point, and did not do it because of too much respect to the book (object)!
    But there are the Sutherland(s books like “Can Jane Eyre be Happy?” that are fun and clever. And lead me to read more…


    • I think Susan Hill’s gimmick is one we all turn to from time to time. I did rediscover Iris Murdoch through her book. But I do know what you mean about other people’s reading. I usually think, Why? since I have my own to do. But I’m sure some are profoundly affected…

      Liked by 1 person

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