The one book that made me a dedicated reader
(Spoiler Alerts for Little Women)
One late spring day, while trying to convince a high school class of the joys and glories of reading, with the hopes of inspiring them to complete their summer reading list, I began to extol the Plaisir Du Texte I have found over the years. I said “Let’s say your life is less than perfect. It’s even painful most of the time. Haven’t you ever been in a place where you just really wanted to be somewhere else?
Before I could add, “Reading will take you to that other place,” one boy piped up in a sad, quiet little voice….“Yes. Right now.”
I could not help but laugh along with everyone else, because while his comment wasn’t exactly politic, his unintentional comedic timing was impeccable. And he didn’t even mean to be rude or funny. He sounded genuinely sad, the poor soul.
Every reader has that one book, that first story that made you embrace reading as if it were food and water, something so essential to your happiness that you simply cannot stop…something that takes you out of your actual environment and brings you to dwell in a place with characters you come to know as well or better than family or friends.
The first time I read Little Women, Jo March, her sisters, her mother, Laurie and Mr. Lawrence, and even Aunt March (boo!) were not just characters: they were friends. It has been decades and I’m still not sure that Jo made the right decision by turning Laurie away when he proposed marriage. Figures that Amy would score with him (spoiled brat). Thank goodness Mr. Bhaer came along eventually.
It was Little Women that led me to value a faith-filled life, and encouraged me to work toward spiritual progress. It gave me a strong sense of ethics and the best values, and a way to know and choose right from wrong.
It introduced me to Pilgrim’s Progress, which Terry says is “too Calvinistic,” and I say “Oh shush, Calvinists started this culture and built this country from the ground up… so go on with your Anglo-Catholic self and leave my Alcott alone! Calvinistic Schmalvinistic, it’s a great story.”
No matter at which point on the theological map you stand, the idea that you should always be improving yourself is a concept that crosses religious boundaries. You fight your lesser nature and strive always to defeat what the Muslims call “your nafs,” which are your weaknesses, failings and temptations personified by characters in Pilgrim’s Progress, which is continually referred to in Little Women.
You try to do better each day. You take your epic journey through the Slough of Despond, you fight the temptations that come your way, and struggle valiantly upward… until the burdens fall off your back… and you reach your destination … the exquisite Celestial City…
The characters in Little Women do exactly that. They also taught me, as a little Catholic girl, that you didn’t necessarily have to be a vowed, celibate religious in order to take your faith seriously.
All of the March girls expected to marry, and all did, except poor Beth, of course. (Spoiler alert: she doesn’t make it to adulthood).
Beth is actually a martyr to her faith, because she contracts tuberculosis when she visits some impoverished neighbors, poor German immigrants, to bring them food—as their mother taught them to do. Their sick baby dies in her lap, and Beth contracts tuberculosis which eventually kills her. The March girls would never have done anything differently. They were taught to help the less fortunate, regardless.
That is taking your faith seriously for sure.
A good novel is one where you finish it, smile, put it back on the shelf, toss it or give it away. You may never reread it.
But a great novel is one whose characters teach you about what makes life worth living.
A story like that is one you will revisit a great many times in your life. The book will become worn, dog-eared and weather beaten, and you will love it even more for the wear. You will read it again and again, maybe once a year at Christmastime, the way I did for years and years with Little Women. It was my personal Christmas ritual, to reread Little Women. This year I missed rereading it, but I bought a copy for my granddaughter Lily, in the hopes that she will fall in love with it the way I did.
A book like this may not have been the darling career-maker of literary critics, but if it makes you a better person, to look upward, to learn what is good and to choose right from wrong….
That, to me, makes it a great book, one that you pass on to the next generation. And thank you, Louisa May Alcott, for giving us those characters and that story.
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph high school in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.