Back in December, I was excited to hear that Greta Gerwig had a new film coming out. One of the first things I heard about the film was that she had departed from the source material in interesting ways, ways that critics described as feminist and innovative. I was excited about this, but embarrassed that I hadn’t read the source material. A gap in my reading history had become an obstacle to my love of film. So I finally read Little Women in the week or two before the film opened in D.C. As I did so, I couldn’t help but ask myself why I’d never read Louisa May Alcott until now.
Many of the ideas that ran through my head are explored thoroughly by Anne Boyd Rioux in “Why Don’t More Boys Read Little Women?” — a book excerpt that LitHub helpfully shared just when I was interrogating myself over the question. The excerpt is worth reading in its entirety (and I’m now curious about the full book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters). After pointing out that boys once read Little Women in far greater numbers, and finding some choice quotes from powerful men praising the book, Rioux cites three main ideas that have conspired to relegate Little Women to a secret rite of passage that girls “read alone with a flashlight under the covers,” rather than part of the canon for boys and girls:
- fear of discussing the story’s feminist implications in the classroom,
- a push to teach more contemporary texts, including those by women and people of color, and
- a focus on solving the crisis in boys’ reading rates by favoring texts perceived to be interesting to boys.
I have only the vaguest memories of Little Women from my childhood. My mother is a writer. I can picture her speaking of the book fondly, perhaps suggesting it as a book she’d like my brother and I to know and be able to discuss with her. Why didn’t I read it? In these hazy memories, the title and cover played a role. The culture had taught me that there were boys’ books and girls’ books. Yellow spines on Nancy Drew stories. Blue spines on Hardy Boys mysteries. Was I a product of the “crisis in boys reading” educators are so concerned about? I don’t think so. I remember devouring anything that was assigned and getting placed in a seperate “gifted” reading group that met outside of my usual classroom. But, yes I was more excited about after-school cartoons. Given a choice, I picked dubbed Japanese space adventures like Voltron and Robotech over a nineteenth century family drama like Little House on the Prairie (which I assume remains perpetually in syndicated daytime reruns in Minnesota today).
None of my teachers assigned Little Women. At home, my parents periodically made sure that reading something for fun was part of my brother and I’s summer, but this usually meant a trip to the library or bookstore to pick whatever we were excicted about. One exception was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn which my parents assigned one summer ahead of an educational family road trip down the Mississippi (Mark Twain’s classics are a good foil for Little Women in Rioux’s exploration above, since they are from the same time period and widely taught tales of a typical American boys’ experience assigned to both boys and girls).
As I got older, there must have been a popular renewal of interest in Alcott in 1994 when Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women starring Winona Ryder came out. I have no recollection of such a wave then either. I was busy in college that year at the suburban/small town campus of the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. I was meeting new friends who introduced me to the books they were excited about, taking classes on literary theory and the modern novel. My reading list was dominated by the influence of those friends and professors for the next decade. They were mostly men: the friends, the professors, and the imparted canon of influences (I remember men teaching literature and women teaching writing in that English department). Beat writers, the Russians (Dostoevsky and Tolstoy mainly), and some tangents I explored on my own like Camus and Beckett and Ellison. To be sure, there were exceptions. Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison come to mind. But no Little Women.
I also recall girlfriends referencing Jo, or talking about the book with their girl friends. But by then we were all struggling to be adults — or at least I was — and making “serious” reading lists of new writers or heavy classics was part of the program. How to make room for a child’s book titled Little Women? Surely whatever lessons a book like that holds are not important to twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings or forty-somethings more than a century later, I might have thought when the book came up.
In the couple of decades since then, it’s become clear that limiting your cultural diet to the perspective of one type of person, just dudes, just white western dudes, is a kind of starvation. It should be obvious, but reading and seeing the world from the perspective of someone with a different body, a different relationship to power will inform your actions towards people unlike you. This is true on both sides of any such difference.
When I wrote more frequently about film in the mid-2000s (something I suppose I’m dipping my toes in to again with this post), I quickly joined in the culture writer’s hobby of list-keeping, ranking filmmakers and films, naming favorites and creating top tens. Once I started down this road, it quickly bled over in to my music and book habits. Once you’ve put ten filmmakers, ten musicians, or ten authors in your journal or spreadsheet, it is hard not to notice your blind spots. Either you decide you are someone who lives and dies by Tarantino and Kubrick, Trent Reznor and Mick Jagger, David Foster Wallace and Charles Bukowski — or you ask what is missing from your list, what your cultural blind spots are, what other people have on their lists that you haven’t yet stopped to consider. Maybe Agnes Varda, Patti Smith, and Margaret Atwood should be in the mix. Maybe they’re closer to the top of the list. What else is missing? Can I dig deeper? What can I learn?
Many of my friends — especially women — who grew up under the same kinds of influences I’ve just outlined now avoid reading men altogether, or are in book clubs organized around doing so. After a year or two of consciously alternating between books by those who don’t identify as male and those who do, I’ve taken a more fluid approach. I know that if I blindly take in acclaimed books and films and pursue threads of reference from one artist to the next, the scale quickly tips towards perspectives and backgrounds I’ve heard plenty from in my life. So I keep lists in notebooks and in Goodreads (and Lightbox for film) of what I’ve finished and what I’m excited to take on next, reviewing the lists as I go to make sure I’m taking in a diverse and challenging set of perspectives. It takes work, but it’s worth it.
So what’s my take on Little Women after finally having read the book and seen Gerwig’s adaptation? Loved both. Gerwig’s timeline and pacing are a delight if the book is fresh in your mind. The departures she takes from the book are light and perfectly in keeping with our understanding of Alcott’s life as a writer, and Jo’s relationship to publishing within the book. Highly recommend.