I am a bibliophile. I’m always reading, always reading about reading, always thinking about what to read next. Reading is education, escape, comfort and challenge. I can’t really remember not reading – even before I could do it on my own, all the adults in my life read to me.
Right now, I’m about to finish Lisa See’s novel “The Island of Sea Women,” about women haenyeo sea divers on a remote Korean island called JeJu during the Korean War. Lisa See’s writing style is not my favorite, but her books tell me stories that I have never encountered, stories about real history and imagined people from across the world. I can’t get enough of them. I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane a couple years ago and images from that novel live, still, in my imagination.
The main character of The Island of Sea Women is a sea diver named Young-sook. The book follows her through the span of her long, full, rich, exhausting, tragic, triumphant life. On Jeju, haenyeo divers are known to be strong, tough, and in charge. They make fun of their weak husbands for sitting around under trees debating philosophy while the women dive deep into the sea to harvest sea urchins, abalones and octopus. The women in this world bring home the <seafood> while the men tend the home-fires.
But Young-sook, like most girls, never learns to read or write. Women didn’t need to be literate to be leaders, there, and the girls in her family needed to become divers and earn money – not waste their time sitting in school rooms.
I know that reading and writing are tools of liberation. I know that for most of human history, women didn’t get to wield them. As recently as 1820, only 12% of the world’s population could read and write. In the United States, teaching an enslaved person to read or write was punishable by a huge fine, imprisonment or whipping.
Things are different today: now, only 14% of the world’s population *can’t* read or write. But the reality that this thing I love so wholeheartedly would have been inaccessible to me had I been born in any other age never fails to shock me. What would I have done? Would someone have taken pity on me, seen my desire and taught me phonics? Would I have written in secret, like Lady Whistledown from Bridgerton or taken a male pen name like George Eliot? I cannot imagine a life without books. I don’t want to.
Today is my sabbath day, and I just booked a private book buying appointment at one of my favorite local bookstores, where I will spend the gift certificate my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas. It’s not like I need to add anything to this teetering To Be Read stack, but oh, the JOY of browsing stacks and shelves, of discovering some new novel or that book I’ve been meaning to read for years. There’s so much to learn, so many stories to fall into.
Take a look: it’s in a book.