Of course, it wasn’t the encyclopedia itself, or the encyclopedia alone, that may made the difference in Sonia Sotomayor’s life. More important was the value placed on learning that led her family to shell out nearly $400 for the Britannica in the first place. And, as Judge Sotomayor has made clear, credit must be given to the Nancy Drew mysteries, which inspired her, she has said, to become a lawyer, so it wasn’t only the Britannica that inspired her.
The story of the little girl reading the Britannica in her Bronx housing project is a perfect example of America’s most treasured narrative of success, treasured, precisely because, for many people, it was true.
It’s Abe Lincoln reading everything he could get his hands on, in part to compensate for his lack of formal schooling. Now it’s Sonia Sotomayor, being raised by a determined, hard-working widow (for whom a $400 encyclopedia must have represented a tremendous financial sacrifice) reading the Britannica in a neighborhood where few if any other people valued it as much as her mother did.
“The Britannica was a physical embodiment of the existence of a serious world where there was a lot to be learned beyond one’s own experience,” Randall Stross, author of the books “The Microsoft Way” and “Planet Google” (and an occasional contributor to The New York Times), said in a telephone conversation. “Just having it on the shelf was a way to remind kids of the importance of education, and it was a counterweight to all the trivial and even dangerous pursuits that surrounded them.”