I recently watched the 1994 movie version of Little Women with my daughters, and it made me remember how much that book touched me when I read it as a child. I loved the March sisters and all of their adventures. I envied them their close bonds, and (although I didn’t recognize the feeling at the time) admired how they rose to meet every challenge. There is a sister for every personality, of course, and I identified most with impatient Jo, the aspiring writer, but the other sisters were just as dear to me; I marveled at the patient Meg, loved sweet Beth, and laughed at silly little Amy. And who can get through this particular book without crying like a baby? I got misty when Mr. March came home on Christmas morning, cried tears of disappointment when Jo refused Laurie’s proposal, and shed buckets of tears when Beth quietly slipped into the afterlife.
I first read Little Women when I was around 10 or 11. I was the perfect age to fall in love with the sisters, and internalize their values and life lessons. At that time I had no idea what this Pilgrim’s Progress book to which they referred so often was, and I really didn’t care. I could love and understand their story perfectly well having no knowledge of that story. And their story was one of humorous scrapes and sisterly love, social challenges and eventually–romance. But when I picked up Little Women in my twenties, with a new baby girl, the reading experience was very different. Perhaps it was because I was remembering it as a 10 year old remembers it, but when I read it again as an adult I found it to be very restrictive. I know that Marmee and Mr. March are supposed to be very modern and progressive, but it rankled that the girls had to be constantly modest and uncomplaining. As a mother of a new daughter it seemed to me that the girls were so good that their example would be impossible for any normal human to live up to. And as someone who had just had, um, “discussions”, shall we say, with my mother about the decision not to baptize the afore-mentioned baby…. all of the religious references really turned me off. Sadly, I put the book down thinking I would never be able to read it to my own little girl.
I read many of my childhood favorites in the years just after my daughters were born: The Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, The Hobbit, the works of John Bellairs, fairy tales by The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and others. Oddly enough, none of my old favorites had quite the same luster they did when I was a kid. Oh I still enjoyed them–some of them very, very much–but it wasn’t the same. The adventures weren’t nearly as exciting, the imaginary worlds weren’t quite as engrossing, and the fairy tales were shockingly violent. What had happened to all of these classic stories during my teen years?! I am sorry to say that I gave up on many of these childhood favorites for a number of years.
Then I turned 30… 31… my oldest daughter turned seven, and although she could read she didn’t want to. It was a bibliophilic parent’s nightmare. How could I persuade her that books were not work, but a delight and a refuge? I started reading aloud to her more than ever. She was in love with dragons at the time, so I pulled out my old, tattered copy of The Hobbit as our bedtime reading. Knowing that my seven year old couldn’t care less about the history of otherworldly elvish poetry I skipped over those parts, sticking to the magic, the good vs. evil, the amazing creatures and breathtaking adventure. I was reading it to her the same way I had read it as a child–picking out the “good parts”. She loved it! I loved it too! We moved on from there to read Pollyanna, then The Chronicles of Narnia. But in the late evenings, after she had gone to bed, I would go back to the books we had just put down and would open them again, re-reading the parts I had skipped for lack of excitement. It was amazing. Re-reading these books in my 30s was a completely different experience from reading them in my twenties. I researched the historical setting; I appreciated the quality of the writing and the pacing of the story. I picked out themes and references I hadn’t caught before. It wasn’t the same as reading these books as a child…. it was–not better, because I don’t think anything compares to that “first time” with a book–but it was richer. Reading these books made me feel connected to history, the author, and the millions of appreciative readers who came before me.
Reading a book for the first time is a solitary activity; we immerse ourselves in it and if we are lucky we live that story exclusively for the duration of our reading. But reading a book for the second, third or fourth time is a social activity; we open our minds to the author’s intention, to the culture at the time it was written, to earlier influences, and to others who have read and reviewed or written commentary on the book before us. A first reading takes us out of our own world, but re-reading connects us to our own world in ways we never could have imagined.
Now my daughter is 9 and has made her mother very happy by becoming an avid reader herself. She tears through thick books like there’s no tomorrow. But I still read aloud to her at bedtime (and whenever she asks, really), and although she chooses her own books to read to herself, I get to choose the books we read together at night. I have a long way to go before we exhaust the list of my childhood favorites. And you know what… I’m thinking of reading Little Women to her next.