Review of Journeys, edited by Catherine Gourley


Young Readers’ Letters to Authors Who Changed Their Lives

Library of Congress Center for the Book
edited by Catherine Gourley

Candlewick Press, 2017. 226 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 5, 2019, from a library book

This book is a collection of fifty-two letters written by young readers to authors about how their lives were touched by the authors’ books. Here’s an excerpt from the Foreword:

Over the years that Letters About Literature has invited young readers to share their personal responses to authors with us at Center for the Book, we have learned that children often approach reading with reluctance and that writing about what they read is often a challenge and, for some, a struggle.

This volume of letters is a showcase of young minds and hearts inspired and at times healed by the power of an author’s words. As the letters so poignantly illustrate, not all books are right for all readers. Likewise, two readers can interpret and respond to the same book quite differently. For some children, finding that right author, that right book, is in itself a bit of a journey. Once a reader finds that author and that book, something remarkable occurs. Readers discover themselves within the pages of the book. They begin to feel and to understand.

The letter-writers range in age from fourth grade to twelfth grade. Almost all of them are deeply personal. Since the editors chose from twenty-five years of letters, this isn’t a surprise. Each letter is showcased with a short description of the author and book they responded to.

I’m going to include a few random excerpts from letters. It’s not hard to find good quotations:

About Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi:

I want to be a writer that opens up doors for people. I want to set scenes and describe occupations that not everyone can become. People may not have the physical or mental capabilities to be an astronaut, race-car driver, teacher, dancer, or baseball player, but for a time, I want them to experience what each of those professions would be like.

I am a ten-year-old boy. I have mild cerebral palsy, but for one cool fall afternoon, I became Crispin, living in the Middle Ages. Thank you for that gift.

About The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak:

I used to be afraid. I used to wake up screaming and seeing a yellow star sewn onto my clothing. I have read many books about the Holocaust, but none of them struck me like The Book Thief. Instead of pain and fear, it is a book that focuses on courage, kindness, the power of words, and hope.

About the Harry Potter books, by J. K. Rowling, from a girl who’d been forbidden to read them:

You have given the world a gift, Ms. Rowling. You have given millions of people a friend, an adventure, and a happy ending that never ceases to amaze. So now, I thank you. Thank you for giving a little girl and her siblings someone to admire and dream about. Thank you for teaching the children of this world how magical love is, and most of all, Ms. Rowling, thank you for giving me Harry.

From a high school student about The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien:

When the soldier eventually kills himself, I was jolted awake. Why are death, war, and loss such taboo subjects? Why must we bury them down deep inside, cover our fears and uncertainties with a strained smile, and ignore a whole part of ourselves? No longer was I going to hide the past and the pain. I wouldn’t give up because people were unwilling to listen. I would spin words into poetry and attempt to define the indefinable. Circumstances had broken my heart, weighed down my shoulders, and given me a lifelong burden to carry. Yet I was unwilling to succumb to the same fate as the disillusioned soldier. I would not be shattered.

Your last story simultaneously opened fresh wounds and gave me the first real comfort since my mom’s death. I cried when Linda died. It was tragic. She was so young. I thought of my mom and it was almost unbearable. However, I realized from your book that stories could keep a person alive. Stories allow us to visit the past how it was: untainted in its beauty and unmarked by death or struggle.

And I love this one, about The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros:

“We are tired of being beautiful.” Thank you for writing those words. I was thinking them. I felt their unspoken pressure until they broke off your page and got stuck in my heart. That was your trick, I suppose. You wrote what everyone was thinking. You are so far away from me, so different, and still you spoke to me and I understood you. You knew me all along.

I am not fat anymore. I never was, I suppose, or maybe I still am. But I’ve stopped thinking about it and I am fine. “I am too strong for her to keep me here forever,” you wrote. I know that by “her,” you meant Mango Street, but I read it as “my body” and “my mind.” My heart came back together then, and I have you to thank for that. You didn’t tell me how to pull myself back together; you just showed me that I could. I was tired of trying to be somebody else’s definition of beautiful, and you told me that was okay. Beauty is not in the beholder, but in she who is beheld.

If you’ve ever wondered whether books can truly change lives, I highly recommend reading this book.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Card Catalog, by The Library of Congress

The Card Catalog

Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures

The Library of Congress
Foreword by Carla Hayden

Chronicle Books, 2017. 224 pages.

A history of the card catalog – it’s surprising how interesting that turns out to be. Well, okay, it’s interesting to me!

This book traces the development of the idea to put catalog information for libraries on 3 x 5 inch index cards. Originally, the Library of Congress would publish a book listing the books in its collection. So listing the information on cards was much more practical. Eventually, the Library of Congress was producing catalog cards for libraries across America.

But that’s only a small portion of this book. The bulk of the pages are pictures of items in the Library of Congress collection – along with pictures of their catalog cards.

There are many classic books, also interesting memorabilia – and on the facing page you’ve got the catalog card – some of them yellowed and beat up – for that item.

This is a beautifully designed book and is lots of fun to browse through. Because it’s mostly pictures, it doesn’t take too long, either.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Dear Fahrenheit 451, by Annie Spence

Dear Fahrenheit 451

Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life

by Annie Spence

Flatiron Books, 2017. 244 pages.
Starred Review

Dear Dear Fahrenheit 451,

You know I have to start my review emulating you, but of course you realize that I won’t do as good a job with it as you did. So basically, you’re giving me a sense of inferiority right from the start. I should probably hate you for that, but instead I feel all fangirly, impressed with your wit and cleverness and knowledge of books.

You asked me (“Dear Reader”) in your last letter a few questions, so the least I can do is continue the correspondence.

Did you make me want to reread a book I broke up with long ago? Well, is it fair to answer that you made me want to watch a movie again? One of my favorite parts in here was your letter to the library in Beauty and the Beast. I love when your author admits: “But the main reason she’s my favorite is you, Library. You’re so golden and glorious, towering over everyone with your endless rows of books. To be Belle for a day!” Oh yes!

But alas! I must admit that your author revealed, in many times and in many ways, that her taste is quite different from mine. Most notable was her letter to The Hobbit, where she explained “We just want different things.” Kind of mind-blowing to reject The Hobbit! But in a backhanded way, yes, that made me want to reread that wonderful book. (Oh! And The Time Traveler’s Wife! Yes, I want to reread that now.)

Did I keep notes of all the reading you suggested and now have a gabazillion books on your list? Well, I did put a couple of books on hold. And checked out Nikki Giovanni’s Love Poems (Wow!). But, see above, I discovered your literary taste is somewhat divergent from mine. Nothing personal. We just want different things. On top of that, I’m about to commence a year of reading children’s books for the Newbery Medal, so I’m trying to pare down my other-books-I-want-to-read list. I honestly don’t have time to let you distract me.

Do I want to know where I can get a copy of The One-Hour Orgasm? No, I do not. But your writing about the things you find on the public library shelves, and the books that need to move on, made me laugh out loud with recognition.

Ah, this perhaps explains why, despite my negative answers to your queries, I thoroughly enjoyed our time together. You reveal your author’s passion for books and let me enjoy her witty book references, clever book flirtations, and observations from a Library Insider.

And I have to say, I soooo agree with you about The Giving Tree! Your author gave it to a boy she loved in high school. I gave it to a boy I loved in college – and married him. As you say, “Do you want to guess how that went, Giving Tree? Want to guess who was the tired old stump at the end of that book?” Would you believe that I actually burned the copy I gave him? You are spot on correct about that one, Dear Fahrenheit 451.

I will make a confession: You were on hold for another reader – and I didn’t turn you back in right away! (I know, shocking behavior in a librarian!) Although I check out far more books than I can ever read, turning in books that someone else wants is something I faithfully do. But I was more than halfway through reading you, and you were just plain fun! So I selfishly kept your company for myself.

And I would very much like to quote you from so many different places. The clever letters of love and of good-by. And the handy-dandy reading lists at the end. So very much fun to read, whether I take the recommendations or not, honestly.

But, as I said, I didn’t turn you in immediately when I should have, and I’m feeling guilty about that. I need to finish this review and send you on to the next reader. But first I will say that anyone who loves books or reading or libraries will find something to love about you.

With Much Affection,


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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Shipping Books at #alamw17

“It’s a sickness.”  
“At least we all have it.”

That was my conversation with a stranger-I-just-met on the Exhibit Hall floor, talking about the free books we aren’t capable of resisting.

If you consider yourself a Book Addict — No ALA conference will ever cure you.  And you’ll be surrounded by other Book Addicts confronted with piles of their drug of choice.

I DO want to proudly declare that yesterday, I did not step into the Exhibit Hall even once!  
I know!  Am I amazing or what?

However — today I went to a Scholastic Preview where they gave me a bag of six Advance Reader Copies.  Combined with the four signed books I got yesterday and the books I’m going to get by going to the Morris Award ceremony — I know it’s already more than I can comfortably carry in my suitcase and carry on.  (I could fit them, but I’m not supposed to carry heavy things.)

So — since I decided I needed to do another shipment — might as well make the shipment count!  I went into the Exhibit Hall and began taking ARCs.  In about two minutes, I’d filled my rolling bag.  After about five minutes, both the bag and a tote bag were full.

The good news — There is a post office in the Exhibit Hall.  The bad news is that it closes before the exhibits do, so you have to plan things carefully.  But this is where my lightning-quick bag-filling came in handy.  I had plenty of time.

And this is where the Book Addicts hang out.  I had a nice conversation while waiting in line about our mutual problem.  I even saw someone I’d encouraged yesterday about grabbing ARCs and told her you can ship them home.  Always happy to Enable a new friend!

I should say that the employees at the Atlanta post office today were extra helpful!  A man was putting boxes together for us and bringing around tape.  I shipped two flat-rate boxes.  I didn’t count how many books it was, but I will when I get back.

I like to use middle-grade ARCs as prizes for a games program.  When the books are prizes, they are all the more valued, and may get read.

As my friend told me when I was shipping my first box, “It’s for the children!”  I don’t have a problem at all….

Publisher Previews at #alamw17

My main activity at ALA Midwinter Meeting today was two publisher previews – Scholastic and Boyds Mills Press.  The second one fed me lunch, which was much nicer than waiting in line for high-priced fast food.

Even more than the books previewed, the sessions were a nice chance to talk with more children’s book people whom I haven’t seen since the last conference or to make new connections.

It’s gotten where I love the world of ALSC – These are my people!

A lot of the faces I’ve seen many times before.  Perhaps after awhile we’ll remember exactly when and where we met — but I know they’re children’s book folks, and thus my people!

As for books — It sounds like it’s going to be another good year!  I liked that Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg wrote a book about a boy who is half Jewish and half Chinese (This Is Not a Test).  I wonder if they know about the book I heard about yesterday by Susan Tan about a girl with the same ethnicity.  (The books sound completely different, but both very interesting.)

It was fun to hear Gordon Korman talk about his new book.  I didn’t realize that he got his first book published when he was 12, in 1976.  That means he’s the same age as me, which doesn’t surprise me, because my 28-year-old heard Gordon Korman speak at her school when she was in middle school.

His new book, Restart, is about a bully who hits his head and gets amnesia.  It seems like an opportunity to become someone different — but that turns out to be harder than it might seem.

We also heard from Natasha Tarpley, author of The Harlem Charade, a story about three 7th graders and some interlocking mysteries.  It celebrates the history of Harlem.  She reminded us that you can create change through stories.  Libraries are important to help kids discover their own stories.

At the Boyds Mills Press lunch, we saw some fantastic picture books.  I especially liked Puppy! Puppy! Puppy!  There was a nonfiction picture book called The Secret Life of a Red Fox with simply glorious art. And there were books for older readers, including an oh-so-timely biography of Alice Paul.

Also, I was given a bag of 6 more Advance Reader Copies.  Guess I might as well go into the exhibits and make another shipment….

Author Panel and Book Signing at #alamw17

This morning I had the privilege of listening to an author interview in the big auditorium at ALA Midwinter 17 moderated by Dan Kraus, featuring Scott Westerfeld, LeUyen Pham, and Susan Tan, who all have new books coming out soon.  He began by asking them about their new books.

LP:  Real Friends is a graphic novel memoir written by Shannon Hale. It’s her story about her first group of friends.  After you read it, you realize the same thing happened to you.  She captures the pain of what happens whe you get ousted from your group.  It’s about very young friendships, but complete with all the emotion of that, and feels universal.

ST – Her debut novel is Cilla Lee Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire.  Her protagonist is growing up in a mixed race family, just like the author.  She’s 8 1/2 years old and getting a new sister.  She’s asked “what are you?” Because of being mixed race, and decides that what she is is a best-selling novelist.  She decides to write her novel before the baby is born so her parents can’t forget about her.

SW – His new book is a graphic novel named Spill Zone.  It’s about a 19-year-old raising her 10-year-old sister.  Their town was destroyed in a disaster no one understands.  He was into climbing buildings and urban exploration in college.  Those spaces are natural places to think about loss and about life.  He started it in 2006, after the tsunami when he realized the drama in having your home town disappear.

LP:  All three books are about sisters.

ST:  Working with the illustrator shaped the novel.  The illustrator found the heart of the scenes, sometimes in a way the author hadn’t realized.

LP:  Writing a graphic novel, especially a memoir, is trickier than writing a picture book and needs a lot more interaction with the author.  She usually strips out the art notes first, but does send the writer editing notes.  It’s like choreography.  A graphic novel gives you the perspectives of more characters.  And the faces of the characters make a big difference in the emotions conveyed.

SW:  The graphic novel gives you the ability to easily jump in and out of different points of view.  But you can still be inside someone’s head. Teenagers have lots of investment in reading to become another person.

ST:  Her book is in first person, but there’s lots of misunderstanding that the reader can see, and the illustrations helped with that.  It’s a child’s confrontation with a larger world.

SW:. Kids are still learning how Point of View works.  For them, books are a machine for becoming another person.

LP:  Writing a graphic novel with her husband when she was pregnant was good practice for parenting.  They had to learn to tell a story together.

They talked about working with an illustrator.

SW:  It’s not good in a movie when character’s say, “He’s getting away!” There’s a balance on when the pictures can and should do the work of telling the story.

Moderator:. All three of these books are earnest, without irony and sarcasm.

ST:  It was important to her to write a confident and exuberant character.  She wanted to capture her indomitable spirit without diminishing it.  Some day, this girl’s deep self-confidence will get shaken…
SW:  Good books for children don’t minimize the pain of being a kid and the pain of making choices.
On Diversity:
SW:  The explosion of the popularity of manga did a great thing for graphic novels.  They even have a different way of telling stories.  Kids are good at reading through difference and reading diversely.
Audience question:  All 3 books are about sisters.  Did you have relationships you pulled from?

LP & ST: Yes

SW:  He has an older sister who’s bad-ass and does real spelunking.  The artist did a great job making his character look like a knight.  She’s more overwhelmed by having to be a parent than by the monsters in the spill zone.  She’s bad-ass like his sister.

After that, we stood in line to get advance copies of all three books signed.  LeUyen Pham drew a picture of the person getting it signed! (Or she substituted a picture of Shannon.)  As usual, I met some great librarians for youth in the line.

Another inspiring session that gave me insight on the process of creating a children’s book and got me excited about three upcoming titles.

The Running of the Librarians at #ALAMW17

Here are librarians milling around, waiting for the Exhibits to open at 5:30 pm.  When they do open, the crush is not insignificant.

This year, I had a mission:  I wanted an Advance Reader Copy of Megan Whalen Turner’s fifth book in the Queen’s Thief series, Thick as Thieves.  I even reread the rest of the series this week.

I checked the publisher (HarperCollins), learned the booth number (2016), and headed straight for it.

I got a copy!

Mind you, they were in the back — you had to ask.  I got a tip from a friend years ago that if there are books you know you want, to be ready to ask for them.

But then — Book Frenzy began.  Publishers placed out Advance Reader Copies (and even some finished books) free for the taking.

You roam the crowded aisles walking past them.

I don’t have it in me to resist.  I’m afraid that I’m in good company.

What’s more, I have a medical reason why I should not carry bags of heavy books on my right shoulder, so I get to bring a wheeled bag onto the floor (with a doctor’s note).

Alas!  That tends to make me show even less restraint.

I came away with 35 books tonight.  (Well, 5 of those were from the Mini-Institute.)  I will use the ones for middle grade readers as prizes for a games program I do at the library.  Some, like Thick as Thieves and Frog Kisser!, a new Garth Nix book, I will probably read before I get home.

The only solution to Book Frenzy seems to be to stay OUT of the Exhibit Hall.  Unfortunately, some programs I want to attend are happening at the Pop Top stage or Book Buzz Theater in the back of the Exhibit Hall.  And I got a ticket to the YALSA Morris and Nonfiction Awards event, where they give you books if you attend.

I’m afraid once I pick up one book, I’ll figure I might as well fill my bag.

So the question of the conference for me becomes, can I learn restraint?

And also, where shall I ship today’s load of books?  FedEx in the hotel or the Post Office on the Exhibit floor?  (But if I go to the Post Office, I’m sure to pick up more books on the way….)

I’m not going to cart these books back to the conference, so it will be FedEx, but which morning should I bring them down?  If I don’t do it tomorrow, I’ll be tempted to keep adding to the load….

The trouble is, these are lovely problems to have.  I’m also afraid I’m quite unrepentant.  Which doesn’t bode well for my future self-restraint.

ALA Annual Conference: Libraries and Book Collections as Essential Cultural Institutions

Libraries and Book Collections as Essential Cultural Institutions:
A Historical and Forward-Looking Perspective

These are notes from a Saturday afternoon session at ALA Annual Conference.

How do we preserve what we have, and how do we move forward into the digital era?

Sasha Abremsky: The House of 20,000 Books
Truly interesting and informative account about his grandparents — an expert on Jewish and socialist history. A vision of stewardship

Scott German: Patience & Fortitude: Fight to save a public library
Efforts to gut the NYPL Like a nail-biting corporate thriller

Matthew Battles: Library: An Unquiet History
Polipsest: A History of the Written Word
Writing is constantly evolving.
Our brains have changed all the time, anyway.

Preserving and going forward:
Sasha: Approaching it from his grandparents’ library. His granddad amassed one of the best private libraries on modern Jewish history.
The importance of the library as the fabric of civilized life.
His grandfather got fascinated with the web of ideas behind socialism.
He started collecting anything printed, anything illuminated, and on it went.
Contacted more and more collectors. Included handwritten notes by Marx, Lenin, etc
Yiddish texts, books written in the 1500s.
Wasn’t just utilitarian. Was concerned about the texture of the page. Was interested in mistakes in the printing techniques. Fascinated by the minutaie of printing. They told him stories.
Where it was printed told him where there were centers of intellectual life.
The grade of paper told him about the intended audience.
Granddad collected books and grandma collected people. Conversations developed around the great ideas collected in those rooms.
The rooms had different intellectual trajectories with how they were laid out.
You gained an understanding of a world vision.
He took it for granted that his granddad would grab a book to prove a point.
All of that was the physical texture of the library.
A library is a place that nurtures conversations and a world view.
How do you preserve libraries as cultural institutions?
A library is inherently a public thing. In a house, it tells you about who that person is. Provides an opening point for an interesting conversation.
Online, there would have been no way to spark those conversations.
In the house the books were the social lubricant.
Online preserves things that would otherwise die, which is good.
Don’t forget the majesty of paper or vellum or parchment or cuneiform. They provide a public entry point to a conversation. And all those nonverbal clues to history.
Paper is still an important, vital, and wonderful part of knowledge.

Scott German heard that stacks were going to be destroyed at NYPL. Heard they’d be “removed” not “demolished.” He was there when they got $100,000 for renovation. of the 42nd Street building. 88 branch libraries. For centuries NYPL has been cash starved. They planned to sell branches to raise money.
In early 2012, the plan became controversial.
His book outlines the battle. The stacks are still there, but they are empty — books had been removed to make way for demolition.
What is the best way to preserve?
For government officials to regulate it before the trustees destroy it.
Librarians need to learn to manage trustees.
Trustees see librarians as serfs. Librarians weren’t consulted. The plan came from the mind of a real estate developer on the board.

Matthew Battles: Widener Library at Harvard. His job involved spending lots of time in the stacks. Part of the structural support of the building itself.

Layers of social history are written into the shelving of the books. LC system and also the Widener system. It was topical in nature. A proverbs class, Moliere class, war, Descartes, etc… They told the story of the institution and how the people from the past were in dialog with our own time.
Started working the same time the card catalog was being converted.
Forensic traces of history of the use of the collection on the cards.
He was seeing marks of previous disruption to the schemes.
They’d used printed bound catalogs before the card catalog.
Interested in the archaeology of the library.
Libraries have been many things materially, socially, culturally…
The library has never been one thing. Yet it’s also an archetype.
When we wonder about the future of the library, we do well to look to the past.
There were libraries before there were books, if we mean things that look like these.
Remember out history and it’s a road to a rich and diverse future.
Librarians preserve, but we also shape collections. Should we be selling that more?
Remember libraries don’t have the same meaning for everyone.
Ethics of librarians developed and evolve.

Sasha: When you catalog something, to an extent you depersonalize it.
One of the greatest joys of a library is the unpredictability.
The more you digitize, the less it becomes unpredictable.
Matthew: That depends on the way it’s done. Gave a story about a finding aid that was digitized that allowed you to discover more.

Guy asked a question who wrote a forthcoming book about public library. He talked with library users. Look at why people love public libraries.
Public discourse around the library is so vital.
We should cultivate a sense of ownership in the public.

Canada: Asking auditor general to declare libraries and holdings as cultural resources.
Relationships between writer, publisher, libraries, shift with every technological change.

Review of Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac, by Anita Silvey

Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac

365 days of history, holidays, and events

365 great children’s books — one for every day of the year

by Anita Silvey

Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2012. 388 pages.
Starred Review
2013 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Nonfiction

Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac is the print form of Anita Silvey’s wonderful blog, also called Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac. I’d been following the blog, so when I learned there was a print book, I made sure to get a copy, and have delved into it daily for all of 2013.

Anita Silvey’s knowledge of children’s books is vast. For each day of the year, she recommends a children’s book with some connection to that date, and gives you a taste of the book and why it is worth reading. As well, each day has a sidebar with facts about that day — children’s authors born that day, as well as other famous people, historic events, and holidays you might not have known about (like “I Love Horses Day” or “Smile Power Day”) — all with related book recommendations.

I was extra happy when I saw she’d listed one of my all-time favorite books, Anne of Green Gables, on my birthday, June 14.

The only catch? It would be hard to read all these books in a year. Now, I’ve read enough already, that I really should take it on as a project one year to read all the ones listed that I haven’t read before. And then the next year, I could try to read at least one of the additionally recommended books for each day, and on and on it could go.

One thing I’m sure of: I read many of the books listed here on Anita Silvey’s recommendation, and I was never disappointed. What you have here is a full year of great reading.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Review of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

My Year of Magical Reading

by Nina Sankovitch

Harper, 2011. 240 pages.
Starred Review

Three years after Nina Sankovitch’s beloved older sister died, Nina decided to embark on a year of reading. One book each day.

Here’s where she explains setting out on her project:

I needed comfort now. I needed hope. Hope that when life turns on you for the worst, it will turn back again, for the good. We girls had been protected for so long from misfortune. But then everything changed. My sister, the one with the reaching hand, was dead. Life had unleashed its unfairness, its random dispersal of pain, its uncaring lynching of certainty. I had tried running, but now I would try reading. I would trust in Connolly’s promise that “words are alive, and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living.”

My book reading would be a discipline. I knew there would be pleasure in my reading, but I needed to hold myself to a schedule as well. Without a commitment, the rest of life could creep in and steal time away, and I wouldn’t read as much as I wanted or needed to. I couldn’t have my escape if I didn’t make books my priority. There is always dust to sweep and laundry to fold; there is always milk to buy and dinner to cook and dishes to wash. But none of that could get in my way for one year. I was allowing myself one year to not run, not plan, not provide. A year of nots: not worry, not control, not make money. Sure, our family could use another income, but we’d gotten by for so long on just one salary, we could do it for one more year. We would lay off the extras and find enough in what we had already.

I planned to begin my book-a-day project on my forty-sixth birthday. I would read my first book that day, and the next day I would write my first review. The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t reread any books I’d already read; and I had to write about every book I read. I would read new books and new authors, and read old books from favorite writers. I wouldn’t read War and Peace, but I could read Tolstoy’s last novel, The Forged Coupon. All the books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have, ones we would have talked about, argued over, and some we would have agreed upon….

I was ready — ready to sit down in my purple chair and read. For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotonies and frustrations. I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience. Books would give me all that, and more. After three years of carrying the truth of my sister’s death around with me, I knew I would never be relieved of my sorrow. I was not hoping for relief. I was hoping for answers. I was trusting in books to answer the relentless question of why I deserved to live. And of how I should live. My year of reading would be my escape back into life.

She doesn’t write in this book about all 365 books — though she does provide a list at the back. Instead, she looks at certain books and the insights from those books or memories they provoked that touched her life and advanced her healing. I’ll provide a few examples:

Man in the Dark is a novel that imagines another world mirroring our own. Two worlds coexisting: Auster uses the device to dig deeply into what keeps us going, what keeps us participating in the motions and the emotions of life. A man, his daughter, and his granddaughter are all facing their own private heartbreaks. They are unsure of how to go on and wavering as to the necessity of even trying to go on. Why bother? And then, in the prose of a lesser-known poet, they find a single sentence that makes perfect sense: “The weird world rolls on.”

The world shifts, and lives change. Without warning or reason, someone who was healthy becomes sick and dies. An onslaught of sorrow, regret, anger, and fear buries those of us left behind. Hopelessness and helplessness follow. But then the world shifts again — rolling on as it does — and with it, lives change again. A new day comes, offering all kinds of possibilities. Even with the experience of pain and sorrow set deep within me and never to be forgotten, I recognize the potent offerings of my unknown future. I live in a “weird world,” shifting and unpredictable, but also bountiful and surprising. There is joy in acknowledging that both the weirdness and the world roll on, but even more, there is resilience.

In talking about The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald, she says:

But now, in reading my books of escape, I had found another way to respond. It was not a way to rid myself of sorrow but a way to absorb it. Through memory. While memory cannot take sorrow away or bring back the dead, remembering ensures that we always have the past with us, the bad moments but also the very, very good moments of laughter shared and meals eaten together and books discussed….

Only now am I grasping the importance of looking backward. Of remembrance. My father finally wrote out his memories for a reason. I took on a year of reading books for a reason. Because words are witness to life: they record what has happened, and they make it all real. Words create the stories that become history and become unforgettable. Even fiction portrays truth: good fiction is truth. Stories about lives remembered bring us backward while allowing us to move forward.

The only balm to sorrow is memory; the only salve for the pain of losing someone to death is acknowledging the life that existed before. Remembering someone won’t literally bring them back, and for one who died too young, memories are not enough to make up for all the possibilities of life that they lost out on. But remembrance is the bones around which a body of resilience is built. I think my father found an answer to how his mother continued on, and he found a way to go on himself. He wrote a history for me to read. Stories helped him, and stories were helping me, both the stories of my father and the stories in all the books I was reading.

Discussing the book By Chance, by Martin Corrick, with its main character James Watson Bolsover, she says:

Bolsover tries to find an explanation for the two deaths, to uncover some reason they had to happen or if they could have been avoided. He searches for answers in books. At the beginning of By Chance, he asks the question, “If fiction is not concerned to understand, what is its subject? Is its purpose merely to pass the time?” but he already knows the answer. The purpose of great literature is to reveal what is hidden and to illuminate what is in darkness.

I especially enjoyed the part where she talked about the reviewing part of her year of reading:

People share books they love. They want to spread to friends and family the goodness that they felt when reading the book or the ideas they found in the pages. In sharing a loved book, a reader is trying to share the same excitement, pleasure, chills, and thrills of reading that they themselves experienced. Why else share? Sharing a love of books and of one particular book is a good thing. But it is also a tricky maneuver, for both sides. The giver of the book is not exactly ripping open her soul for a free look, but when she hands over the book with the comment that it is one of her favorites, such an admission is very close to the baring of the soul. We are what we love to read, and when we admit to loving a book, we admit that the book represents some aspect of ourselves truly, whether it is that we are suckers for romance or pining for adventure or secretly fascinated by crime.

And often, she’d turn to how much this experience was doing for her:

The Assault is about more than war. Hannah Coulter is about more than war. Those two books — and all the great books I was reading — were about the complexity and entirety of the human experience. About the things we wish to forget and those we want more and more of. About how we react and how we wish we could react. Books are experience, the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfillment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me while I read in my purple chair. I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.

I haven’t read a lot of the books she chose. So I especially took notice when she let her thoughts flow from a book I’d read and loved, Little Bee:

But books were showing me that everyone suffers, at different times in our lives. And that yes, in fact, there were many people who knew exactly what I was going through. Now, through reading, I found that suffering and finding joy are universal experiences, and that those experiences are the connection between me and the rest of the world. My friends could have told me the same, I know, but with friends there are always barriers, hidden corners, and covered emotions. In books, the characters are made known to me, inside and out, and in knowing them, I know myself, and the real people who populate my world.

Yes, this is a memoir for book lovers. Again, I especially loved her reflections on what she’d gotten out of writing about the books. This one was from her discussion of finishing up the year of reading:

I do need to talk about books. Because talking about books allows me to talk about anything with anyone. With family, friends, and even with strangers who contacted me through my Web site (and became friends), when we discuss what we are reading, what we are really discussing is our own lives, our take on everything from sorrow to fidelity to responsibility, from money to religion, from worrying to inebriation, from sex to laundry, and back again. No topic is taboo, as long as we can tie it in to a book we’ve read, and all responses are allowed, couched in terms of characters and their situations.

Now, one of my reactions to Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is envy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to make your “work” each day be to read a book! However, as I write this, I’m on the ballot for next year’s Newbery committee. And serving on the Newbery committee would be a way of dedicating my life to reading for a solid year, every bit as much as Nina Sankovitch did, though perhaps in a different way. I like her approach of treating books as therapy, as escape, as growth. Now my divorce is complete; I’m moving into my first purchased home on my own. What a good time it would be to celebrate the new phase in my life with books!

But even if you don’t have an opportunity to devote a year of your life to books, for anyone to whom that idea sounds delightful, I highly recommend the vicarious experience of spending some time with Nina Sankovitch as she explores her own healing through books.

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