Author Nina Sankovitch, J84, once embarked on a self-healing journey to read a book a day for a year. Today, her devotion to stories continues.
For Nina Sankovitch, J84, to read is to embark to parts unknown, but it is also a way to find your way home. She chronicled that journey in her 2011 memoir, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading. Struggling with the deep sadness she felt after the death of her beloved sister from cancer, she committed to reading a book a day for a year. Perhaps fittingly, the memoir that resulted secured “must-read” urgency. It was designated a “book to read now” by Oprah and praised as a “celebration of the richness of reading” by Kirkus Review.
Today, Sankovitch remains a voracious reader, even as she maintains a thriving career as a nonfiction writer. The author of Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing and The Lowells of Massachusetts, she most recently published American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution, winner of the New England Society in the City of New York 2021 award for historical nonfiction.
She has written for the New York Times, Vogue, and other media, and blogs on Medium. Her fifth book, due out in 2023, will tell the little-known story of an 18th-century non-binary minister who established a community of followers in Seneca Lake, New York, drawn together by the values of equality and opportunity for all.
Sankovitch, a native of Illinois, came East to study history at Tufts, and earned a law degree from Harvard Law School. She worked as a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council and as president and executive director of the Connecticut nonprofit Save the Sound before she shifted gears to write, an occupation that allowed her to spend more time at home raising her four boys.
Tufts Now reached Sankovitch recently at her home in Connecticut to talk about the power of reading, and the endless joy she discovers by simply making time to read.
Tufts Now: In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, you write: “One of the simplest pleasures I know is to sit and eat with a book beside me, devouring words as I devour food.” Can you talk about reading as a form of food, or sustenance?
Nina Sankovitch: It's interesting that you bring up that quote because I was thinking about it today, actually. I am alone in my house for the first time in weeks and I sat down at lunch with my salad and my book of Christmas mysteries. I thought to myself: This is perfection, this is what I need. This is the nourishment I need.
What do you mean by nourishment?
To me reading is such a simple and yet such a profound joy; we sit down and lose ourselves in a good book. I say lose ourselves because we go away from ourselves for the moment of reading. But we also find ourselves. And we may see someone who reminds us of ourselves or not at all, who shows us how wide a world it is and how many varieties of people there are and how many different choices we can make in life. It’s just incredible that a simple book can do that, can bring us across great divides, that I can sit down with my little salad and find myself transported. It really is a wonder and a joy.
What gave you the idea of reading a book a day?
I wasn’t doing well after the death of my sister and I turned to books as a way to cope. I wasn't sure what I would find; I only knew that I'd always loved to share books with her, and I knew that it would make me sit down and sit still and focus, which I hadn't been doing for three years. But what I found was that all great books deal at some point or other with grief, with sorrow, with loss, with having to figure out how to go on with your life. And I realized that that is a universal experience, that there's no life untouched by some terrible grief, some terrible setback. No one has an easy life, no one.
One reason why that experience was so joyful was that I read books from around the world. I thanked the translators of the world for giving those gifts to all of us. Because of them I had this shared experience of living that made me feel less alone and also made me realize, if other people can get through it, I can get through it. I can use the words of other people to give me guidance, to give me comfort and get me out of this rift that I found myself in. And the words of other people really did set me on the road to recovery.
You also found your sister in the books. You saw her in Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz, in the character Aurora who reflects, “There's nothing wrong with tranquility nor emptiness, vertigo, or even unhappiness.” You wrote, “I pictured Anne Marie, saying these words and offering counsel to me.” It seems she is speaking to you through the book.
I did find her again. And in fact, I reached out to the author, Almudena Solana, a Spanish writer who now lives in Los Angeles. We actually became friends through her book. She has also suffered some losses in her life and she shared those with me. The fact that I could have this friendship with the author through a friendship I found in a character—again, that speaks to the power of books. They have this incredible ability to create connections across continents and across time.
I want to ask you about courage, because while you were looking for solace, you weren't necessarily looking for the easy read. That must have taken some bravery.
Yes, I read some very tough books, books that really moved me, made me cry. They were about issues that were tough issues. I think I speak for myself and others when I say: "Oh, I don't want to read that—I need something to take me away." But even those books that offer us a terrible picture of reality, of how things really are, can also propel us to think more about what's important to us. What's important in our lives? How do we want to demonstrate to others how we care about them?
I just finished a wonderful book called The Wrong End of the Telescope, by Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese writer. It’s set on the island of Lesbos in 2016 when there was that terrible refugee camp. One of the main characters is a transgender Lebanese doctor who comes to the island to offer her help. And I delayed reading it because I thought, “Oh, I'm so upset by how the refugee crisis continues to this day.” This book was set in 2016 and things were only worse.
And yet I read the book and I love it. It made me feel that there was hope, that terrible things happened in these refugee camps, but there were wonderful acts of humanity as well.
There were people who tried to connect, tried to make things better. And it's almost as if the book is saying to me, “You can do better, you can do more; don't hide from these issues, do more.” And so it is important to read things that bring you joy or that take you away, but it's also important to read the books that challenge us. I would say, if you really don't like a book, stop. But it is important to read a whole variety of books. That's something I definitely learned during my year of reading.
One of the many books you quote is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: “Always within the never.” Can you talk more about that?
What that means is that books can hold you in a moment outside of time. Reading holds us in a moment created by the author, but we don't even see it. So often when we're reading, we don't think about the author. We're there with the characters; they're real and living. There's no author behind them; they are who they are.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog actually was the first book of my year of reading. It had been a gift that same day, so I thought that I'd start with it. It’s about the importance of reading and how books help this cynical and retiring woman, the concierge of a building where there also lives a young girl who wants to kill herself. Books bring them together. There’s another character as well and they learn together that life has horrible, terrible moments, but it also has beautiful moments and it's our human ability to hang onto those beautiful moments that give us the resilience to keep going.
I think it tells us, I will wake up tomorrow morning and there may be another chance of more beauty, I can keep going. It resonated with me because having my sister die had me struggle with this idea of what does that mean that she's dead? She really is gone, but for me she's still alive. She's still here with me in my heart obviously, but also in all my memories. So it was quite a book to begin with. And it's a book I recommend for anyone to read.
You’ve taken reading as a habit to heart, embraced it as a personal philosophy in a way. You share tips on your blog: “Always have a book with you. Read before bed. Read before getting out of bed. Read instead of vacuuming. Read while vacuuming.” What you’re saying is: Make time, find time to keep reading.
Yes. I also tell people: Don't look for that hour to read because you're not going to find an hour to read. Just try to find 20 minutes. If you always have a book with you, believe me, you'll come up with 20 minutes when you're waiting for something. And sometimes just let yourself go and dive into a book. I’m reading a collection of Christmas mysteries, but also I started a novel called China Room, by Sunjeev Sahota, which was nominated for a Booker Prize. And the other night, I opened the new Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton collaboration, State of Terror. I started that book at eight o’clock and I stayed up until two in the morning to finish it! It was a page turner.
When you were young, what captured your imagination as a reader?
I just loved Harriet the Spy and all the Encyclopedia Brown books. My sisters and I loved Sherlock Holmes. I’ve carried my love of mysteries through my whole life. But I also had my sense of writing developed by important novelists. In high school, a lot of writers opened me up to the world outside of where I lived, which was Evanston, Illinois.
One of my favorites then and now is Nadine Gordimer. I read Burger's Daughter in high school and I've reread it every stage of my life. I've given that book to so many young women, because it's a book about a young woman trying to figure out her role in the world. It is such a beautiful book. And as I say, it has applied to me throughout the stages of my life. To me, the sign of a great book is that it can be relevant in different ways to a person at different points of their lives.
Was there a book that inspired you to become a writer?
I credit my love of history to the wonderful Gerald Gill. As a history major at Tufts, I had Gerald Gill as my professor, and he encouraged me to read all kinds of history books, including autobiographies and biographies. He said you need to look at history as reality, as how real people lived during real times, and we need to learn from them. We need to understand what it's like to be human at all different stages of history.
That advice really planted the seed for me of how important it is for us to understand the people who were in history and not just the events of history. And that's the kind of writer that I try to be: someone who looks beyond the big events at the people who were literally living then and what life was like for them at that time.
That theme of individual lives seems to have informed your most recent book, American Rebels, where you’ve taken a fresh look at pivotal characters in American history—John Hancock and his wife, Dorothy Quincy Hancock, John Adams and his wife, Abigail Smith Adams —people whom you call “largely forgotten rebels who changed the world for all of us.”
Right. When you think about what it was like for Abigail Adams to run a farm in the midst of a revolution, her husband miles away, there's actually a lot going on there for her to manage. And just the everyday practicalities, they're interesting to me and I think they're interesting to a lot of people.
Another thing that feeds my love of the personal stories that are often lost or obscured are collections of handwritten letters. Just today I was looking at a collection of the letters of James Russell Lowell in the Adirondacks, and to be able to go back and read someone's letters from the 1850s—they put you in the place at that time. It’s just fascinating. If we don't have those kinds of records, it's a terrible loss.
Is there a nonfiction author or book that you think of as a gold standard?
Yes–and a Tufts graduate! Jill Lepore [Class of 1987]. I have loved all of her books. She will dig deep into the sort of the personal individual stories and then let us see the larger picture of events from history. Especially some of her earlier books; she wrote a beautiful one about Ben Franklin’s sister, Jane, [Book of Ages] that is just amazing.
What are you most proud of when you look back on your career so far?
I would say it was something interesting that happened after the publication of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. The book was translated into a lot of languages, including Persian for Iranian readers. That was done without my permission or any kind of contract because of the embargo. But the publishers went ahead and published it anyway and it is now a bestseller in Iran. I get letters or emails every day from people in Iran who read my book and it's meant something to them. They write to me about a mother who died or a sister who died or some other loss in their life and how my book has helped them.
To think I can connect with Iranian people who've suffered the same sort of things I've suffered and found in books the same kind of solace I've found—that is a wonderful accomplishment. It is an example of how we are able to bridge a huge divide by our love of books to become friends.
Laura Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.