FLORENCE GILKESON: Glad to Know Sonia Likes Nancy Drew
My first reaction to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor focused not on her qualifications for the United States Supreme Court but on her childhood reading habits.
Admittedly, reading Nancy Drew books is not exactly an intellectual pursuit, but it formed a link with a distinguished woman well on her way to a seat on the highest court in the land.
I was about 10 years old when I received my first Nancy Drew book. The occasion was a birthday party, and the book, as I recall, was "The Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trunk." To this day, I can tell you the solution to that mystery.
From then on, I was hooked. I read every Nancy Drew book as soon as it appeared on library shelves. When family members asked what I wanted for Christmas or birthdays, the answer was always a Nancy Drew mystery.
My next addiction became the Perry Mason courtroom mysteries by Erle Stanley Gardner, also popular reading material for Sotomayor. Many years later, I realized as a newspaper reporter that real life courtroom scenes are rarely as dramatic as the novels of the prolific Gardner. Upon later reflection, I decided that Gardner, who was an attorney, turned to fiction to liven up the dreary routine of the courtroom.
Since then, many lawyers have followed in his footsteps, Scott Turow and John Grisham among them.
Great literature is not the word for the Nancy Drew mysteries or the Perry Mason cases. In fact, it came as something of a shock to learn that the intrepid teenager was the creation of a man, Edward Stratemeyer, who also inspired the Hardy Boys books. The "Carolyn Keene" whose name appeared as author on the Nancy Drew books did not exist. It was a pseudonym for a series of ghost writers who churned out the formulaic plots featuring young Nancy and her friends.
A Google check shows that the Nancy Drew stories were also the reading material of such diverse women as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush, a librarian.
These youthful adventure stories serve us well by inspiring great American women.
Today's readers have difficulty realizing that Charles Dickens was not all that highly regarded as a writer in his day. Although his books, some printed in serial form, were very popular, he was probably not regarded as a literary genius at that time. Today, the works of Dickens are required reading for most high school students. We recognize Dickens for his critical eye on social conditions of his day and his keen understanding of the culture and politics of 19th Century England.
I once had a friend who turned up his nose at fiction. He was well-educated but when the subject turned to reading, he would say "I never read fiction." That guy is not alone. Many people look down on fiction as a flight of fancy for the less practical among us. I later learned that his idea of nonfiction was the how-to book.
Just because fiction does not deal with facts does not mean the reader can't learn from its pages. The best authors devote many weeks, even years, to research. I've often wondered how much time James A. Michener spent developing material for his more extensive works, such as "Poland," a volume of several hundred pages recording the history of a country dating to primitive times and the Tatars.
Fiction has always been a favorite pastime of mine. It's not the only genre I read, for I enjoy a variety of nonfiction, from nature and politics to memoirs and biographies. My personal library includes archaeology, anthropology and ancient history. But nothing stirs my imagination the way fiction does.
Nor does anything irritate me worse than poorly written trash. I don't mind some trash, but it does have to be well-written.
Contact Florence Gilkeson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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