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For Justice Sotomayor, Books Unlocked Imagination


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has a new autobiography out about her life and her career in law. Earlier this week, we broadcast portions of her interview with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Today, Nina talks to the justice about the role that books have played in her life.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Sonia Sotomayor's life in the tenements of New York was marked by the isolation of her father's alcoholism and the tensions it caused in the family. But when Sotomayor was nine, and her father died, things got worse. Her mother, when home from work, retreated to her bedroom. The apartment was dark. Nine-year-old Sonia had lost the desire to play outside, and so she started to read.

JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Reading became my rocket ship out of the second-floor apartment in the projects. I traveled the world through books. And even to this day, if I'm feeling down about anything, I pick up a book and I just read.

TOTENBERG: The first books she read were comics.

SOTOMAYOR: At first I read Archie. I then graduated to the Marvel series. When Spiderman and Batman came out, I was in love, OK? And I gave up comic books shortly after I started reading serious - more serious - literature like Nancy Drew.

TOTENBERG: For Sotomayor, as for generations of American girls, including many of the correspondents on this network, Nancy Drew was a first female role model.

SOTOMAYOR: She had character, and she had courage.

TOTENBERG: And Nancy was of a world that Sonia Sotomayor knew nothing about.

SOTOMAYOR: A world of real wealth. Her blue roadster - my having a sports car became a life dream.

TOTENBERG: Sotomayor fulfilled the dream, sort of, when she joined the Manhattan D.A.'s office as a prosecutor and bought a red Toyota Celica.

SOTOMAYOR: I was the happiest camper when I saw that car. And when I got in it, I just imagined myself being Nancy Drew.

TOTENBERG: Other books would become, for Sotomayor, even bigger window-openers: the book of Greek mythology that her family doctor gave her; the book summaries that she read in the Reader's Digest magazines that her mother subscribed to; and then there was the day the man came to the door and persuaded her mother to buy a set of encyclopedias.

SOTOMAYOR: I got lost in that encyclopedia. And the wonder of it was that it was in my home, not in a library. I set a task, which was to read the book for an hour a day. I think I did that for almost a year. It was a universe opener.

TOTENBERG: Also on her list of window openers is "Lord of the Flies."

SOTOMAYOR: The first book I read that didn't talk about human nature but portrayed it, and portrayed it in a way that captivated my understanding that although you could aspire to believing in the good of people, it is something you have to nurture. That book showed that left to their own devices, kids who had been taught how to order themselves, how to treat each other well, fell apart.

TOTENBERG: The Sotomayor buried in books in the projects was a kid who loved the idea of other worlds. After she read her first Isaac Asimov science-fiction novel, she became what she calls a sci-fi garbage can.

SOTOMAYOR: I read "The Hobbit." I read "Dune." I read everything I could get my hands on because I thought it was just fascinating to think about alternative worlds and wondering about whether they existed, and if they didn't, what they could teach us.

TOTENBERG: The ultimate may have been George Orwell's "1984."

SOTOMAYOR: My God, what an impact it had on me. The idea of Big Brother was, and I may still, influence my thinking about democracy; the idea that we would have a government that was all-knowing and all-doing for human beings was frightening.

TOTENBERG: She says that while the book may not influence her jurisprudence, it is sometimes in her mind when she thinks about a constitutional problem involving when to allow government searches.

SOTOMAYOR: That was a seminal piece in my waking up to the role of government in individual lives.

TOTENBERG: Some of the books Sotomayor read in school seemed removed from real life, like Shakespeare plays, until she went with a cousin to a free performance of "Romeo and Juliet" in Central Park.

SOTOMAYOR: And I actually saw how plays came alive in a way that print couldn't convey.


TOTENBERG: It was the perfect play for a kid, she says.

SOTOMAYOR: Because it's understandable. The human drama is understandable.

TOTENBERG: And when "West Side Story" came out, this Bronx native and daughter of Puerto Ricans, got it.


SOTOMAYOR: Having read "Romeo and Juliet," I understood where "West Side Story" had come from. And so, that was almost a learning connection that you can take old themes and update them and apply them to current situations. It also taught me how Shakespeare was really drawing on emotional understandings.

TOTENBERG: After learning this lesson from "Romeo and Juliet," she went back to Shakespeare and before going off to college read all the plays, not that all her literature loves are so highfalutin.

SOTOMAYOR: I am still a lifelong lover of mysteries. I mean, it fed into my lawyer-policeman desires as a child and my Nancy Drew love of solving mysteries, OK.

TOTENBERG: And mysteries, she points out, can educate. They can transport you to different places and cultures. One of the first to do that for her was Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express." After that, she became a particular fan of mysteries set in foreign countries.

SOTOMAYOR: Because I would learn about those cultures. So I read mysteries about South Africa, and I really understood apartheid not from the history books I was reading in college but learning about the impact of it on people from the descriptors in these series of books.

TOTENBERG: No single book is her favorite, says Sonia Sotomayor, noting that even a dry manual on writing, like Strunk and White's "Elements of Style," became one her most valued volumes as she taught herself to write in college.

SOTOMAYOR: It's not one individual book, but a key that's opened a door for my imagination, for my knowledge base, and those windows have enriched my life.

TOTENBERG: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her autobiography, out this week, is entitled "My Beloved World." Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.