The Characteristics of a Great Commute Book

by SAMANTHA WALLAProduction Manager

I spent the summer commuting from New Jersey to Manhattan: a two-hour door to door odyssey, and if you’re familiar at all with NJ Transit, you’ll know that I rarely succeeded in arriving at my destination on time.

Anita Diamant’s retelling of a Biblical story has been compared to midrash, or Torah commentary. SAMANTHA WALLA / THE QUADRANGLE

This experience, however, has left me an expert in commute books. After spending a summer going through bestsellers, classics, biographies, books of essays and short stories, I can not only confidently describe my method of choosing the perfect commute book, but recommend a story to join you on your journey to your fall internship. The perfect commute book should be…

1. Easy to read, but conceptually intelligent.

I began “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant early in the summer, still bright-eyed at 6 a.m. and eager to use my morning commute to catch up on some reading. Coming off of a semester of reading academic essays and the great American works of literature, I needed an easier read to gently guide my brain back into the swing of things.

Diamant uses the framework of a story some might already know: the tale of Dinah, daughter of Jacob in Genesis 34.

Although Dinah is a minor character with a gruesome end to her story in the Bible, Diamant gives her life context, meaning and beauty. At the center of Dinah’s life through all of this is the Red Tent. The menstrual tent to which the women of Jacob’s tribe retreat once a month serves as the anchor of Dinah’s childhood, and a memory that carries with her throughout her life.

The novel is easy to begin and get lost within; written in simple but poignant prose. While a more complex novel might have pushed me to the ease of Candy Crush in the mornings, The Red Tent offered an interesting world to settle into with no barrier to entry.

2. Respectable enough to not have to use a Kindle on the train.

Although reading is a solitary activity, fellow commuters are certainly peeking at the reading material of others. Especially as a young professional(ish), I wanted to contend with the New York Times crossword crowd.

After its publication in 1997, The Red Tent became an instant book club favorite. As a strongly female-driven centric novel, it quickly became popular with intellectual feminists.

Additionally, the novel’s color and dimension added to the Biblical story has led many Rabbinical feminists compare it to midrash, a type of commentary on the Torah.

Although Diamant addresses the creative liberties taken in the novel, namely that there is no recorded evidence of a menstrual tent being used by this society, it opens a world of discussion for religious texts.

Devoted followers of religion and historical fiction readers alike will find that bringing this religious text to life is not only an enjoyable experience, but the gateway to having fuller, more diverse conversations about religious history.

3. Gripping enough to make you not care about your train delays.

Diamant’s retelling of Dinah’s story spans her entire life, from her days as the daughter of Jacob’s four wives, to the pivotal moment that the Bible recounts, through the rest of her life.

Diamant gives a deserving retelling of one of the many female characters in the Bible that serve as plot points or catalysts for the stories of men. By looking at the stories of women who were overlooked and reduced to names, a world of religious text and history is opened for discussion and interpretation.

The book serves as a perfect introduction to historical and Biblical fiction, inviting readers to question stories they already know and consider the many perspectives of historic and religious texts.

Although light and happy reading might be a more ideal way to begin the work day, I found myself blinking back tears while pulling into Penn Station with “The Red Tent” in my lap; in part moved by Diamant’s speculation of Dinah’s life, and disappointed that I would spend the voyage home without her story to keep me company.

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