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Most Pleasurable Reading We’re Not Doing: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
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I don’t remember when or where or how old I was when I first read Little Women. This is unusual for me as a voracious bookworm with vivid memories of reading favorite books. For example: as a “tween,” lying on my parents’ bed in our tiny apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and calling my mother in to read the death of Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin because I was dissolved in tears but HAD to know what happened. I can also distinctly remember reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and at one point in my life, when relationships were particularly rocky and nights particularly sleepless, rereading it every couple of months in a kind of angsty ritual of identification with Elizabeth Bennett and her smart mouth. I loved her intimacy with her big sister Jane, her clear-eyed, incisive criticism of hypocrisy, pretension, and human folly, and her identification with her misanthropic father, rather than her silly, loose-lipped mother.

But I didn’t read Little Women—or at least, I don’t remember it. This means that, unlike legions of girls for the last century and a half, I was not a fan. I do not have a well-worn copy of the novel I return to, while I have several copies of Pride and Prejudice; haven’t committed phrases or whole passages of the book to memory as I have done with Pride and Prejudice (aided by the impeccable A&E television adaptation, which has become a family favorite); nor did I rush out and buy Little Women for my daughter, who also turned out to be a bookworm (she now sports a button on her shoulder bag that trumpets, “Reading is Sexy”). As this daughter grew up, I got addicted to teen and young adult tales by women and about rebellious girls, reading them first together, and then separately, and discussing them passionately. Her favorites were medieval fantasies, especially Tamora Pierce’s Alanna Quartet and its many spin-offs (including my favorite, the “Trickster” series, featuring Alanna’s daughter Aliane, who is chosen by an ambitious minor god—the Trickster of the title—to mastermind a political coup in an island state riddled with slavery). These are her “comfort books,” books she reverts to whenever she comes home from college, on those sleepless nights in a room shadowed by memories of high school.

In a similar vein (and as a recovering insomniac), I have to confess to having read most of the True Blood books before the dreadful TV series appeared, the Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games Trilogy, and the Fifty Shades Trilogy, even after my daughter abandoned them all as trash. I am just finishing Midnight Sun, a pirated, partial draft by Stephanie Meyers that tells the story of Twilight from the besotted vampire Edward’s point of view. Because someone leaked it to the web, Meyers never finished or published it. (My daughter’s wry comment: Is the writing as bad as in her published novels, Mom?) A young woman student who works at my college library sent me the pdf, after we struck up an excited conversation about “girl lit” when she saw that I checked out a book titled “Little Women” and the Feminist Imagination. Fans love to share. The legacy of my daughter’s distinctive reading habits is part of the story of my plea sure reading, and my recovered plea sure in reading Little Women.

Recently, I reread Alcott’s perennial bestseller, as well as biographies and criticism, to prepare for a series of talks about its transition from “page to stage,” in conjunction with our local opera company, which featured Mark Adamos’s opera Little Women in its 2013 summer season. I was abashed at what I found in the novel this time around that I had forgotten or overlooked in my unmemorable reading years before:

  • •   Marmee’s cleansing anger;

  • •   Jo’s radical expression of sexuality—not the by-now-familiar and somewhat generalized “queerness” but a surprising articulation of transgender desire;

  • •   and an overarching religious piety that comfortably embraces both of them.

In fact, I realized that many of my daughter’s favorite unconventional cross...



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