For the novelist, books have opened up worlds of strong women, exotic food and at-hand wisdom.
In my first novel, The Red Tent, I re-imagined the culture of biblical women as close, sustaining and strong, but I am not the least bit nostalgic for that world, without antibiotics, or birth control, or the printed page. Women were restricted and vulnerable in body, mind and spirit, a condition that persists wherever women are not permitted to read. Literacy is a cornerstone of human freedom, and female literacy has an immediate, salutary impact on the quality of life, not just for the individual but for her family and community, too. A woman or girl with a book in her hand is a catalyst, a pioneer. You never know how far she'll go.
When I was a child, the public library on Osborne Terrace in Newark, New Jersey, was one of the first places I was allowed to walk to all by myself. I went every week, and I can still draw a map of the children's room, up a flight of stairs, where the Louisa May Alcott books were arranged to the left as you entered. Nonfiction, near the middle of the room, was loaded with biographies. I read several, about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart and Helen Keller, with whom I share a birthday.
But by the time I was 11, the children's library was starting to feel confining, so I snuck downstairs to the adult stacks for a copy of The Good Earth. (I'd overheard a grown-up conversation about the book and it sounded interesting.) The librarian glanced at the title and said I wasn't old enough for the novel, and furthermore my card only entitled me to take out children's books. I defended my choice. I said my parents had given me permission, which was only half a fib since my mother and father had never denied me any book. Eventually, the librarian relented and I walked home, triumphant. My world would never be the same.
Anita Diamant's second novel, Good Harbor (Scribner), will be published in paperback in October.
What's on Anita Diamant's Bookshelf? Read more!
From the September 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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