“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” – Marcel Proust
The book was small, hard-covered, with a broken binding. My grandmother held it carefully as she told me the book had belonged to my mother when she was my age. She had discovered it when she was cleaning out “the little house” – a small cottage on the back of their property filled to the brim with heirlooms spanning generations – and she thought I might like to have it.
The book was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I had no idea then what the story was about. But the fact that it had belonged to my mother and that it was something she and I could share was exciting. And this bequeathal initiated me into a sort of curatorial community as far as the family was concerned, for I was being given an artifact, a treasure, from the mysteriously off-limits “little house” which meant it had to be worth something. My 10-year-old mind couldn’t possibly know in that moment what a treasure that book would in fact become, but I felt as though I had been given something truly special.
It wasn’t an old book, but it had been well read. The mellowed cover had a color picture of a young woman, reclining on a candy-striped sofa with books strewn around the floor at her feet, thoroughly absorbed in reading the book she held in her hands. The sofa looked to be located in a sort of attic playroom, with the back of the book’s cover depicting old trunks, bookcases and an oil lamp surrounding a window laced with a flowering vine. It looked like a lovely place to wile away the day. The cover alone captivated my imagination and to this day I often look to a book’s cover as one way of determining whether I will or will not delve into the pages enclosed therein. The pages were brittle and brown all along the edges, which gave them a warm inviting glow. These might be off-putting to some readers, however, due to the musty breath they exuded when they were riffled, an aroma carefully cultivated over the course of many years by the damp beach air and the close proximity of older and wiser heirlooms. But to me those pages smelled glorious, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. A scent I would say now was a blend of heavy dust, smoked old cedar and mothballs and which I will forever associate with a certain kind of comfort and rest that comes from the pleasure of reading.
Little Women was the first novel I ever remember loving like it was a living thing. I read it over and over and over again and this lingering dwelling within its pages brought with it not only the gift of many life lessons, but friendships I’ve continued to carry with me. The story of the four March girls – Margaret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Beth and Amy – struggling at home alone with their mother while their father was away fighting in the Civil War taught me there are various wars and battles that need fighting in every facet of a life. Spending time with the Marches, I learned a lot about anger and jealousy, sickness and love, poverty, worldly riches, and the unexpected joyful wealth of a rightly ordered soul. Their stories made me cry, but they also made me feel safe and helped me to make sense of the loss and joy and pain of life in its many stages. The girls and their Marmee taught me about forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and detachment from the vanities of the world. Whenever I was sick or felt alone, I opened the pages of that novel and lost myself in its world. The book became a boon companion, never far from me, no matter where I moved. It is here next to me even now as I write this, days and years away from the moment my grandmother entrusted it to my care.
One of the novel’s themes was discovering one’s vocation in life and developing one’s unique gifts. There was a sense that each girl was meant for something, had a purpose to fulfill in the world and, though never overt, the gift of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a Christmas gift and the virtuous actions of the March family suggested an upbringing rooted in the Christian faith. Part of the fun of reading the novel was watching each girl find her way along her own path to realizing and developing her gifts. Gentle Meg had a talent and a love for homemaking, mothering, and everything that went along with it. Jo was a tousle of contradictions, loving an active life as much as the quiet life of the mind. Beth was a natural musician with a generous heart, and pretty Amy loved fashion and art. Like many young women before me and since, I fell in love with the tomboyish, headstrong, literary daydreamer Jo. Watching her pursue her path towards a life lived in writing and study, I began to conceive of a writing life and the sacrifices it would demand and the fulfillment it could bring. Every book, in some way, must necessarily change us, for we can never be the same person we were before we allowed the story and its people, places, and conflicts to enter into our lives for whatever amount of time they occupy. I think it is safe to say that my involved and repetitive experiences with Little Women at least in part defined my choice to become a writer and to surround myself with books and learning. Jo’s character and her journey in the novel made it possible for me to consider a life as a writer, that this was something I could choose. As any true friend would do, Jo seemed to give me the encouragement that I was seeking and in doing so helped me to attend to nurturing the gift that truly made my soul come alive.
And this is the gift of literature as an art – it has the potential to speak to our deepest human emotions, longings, fears, and dreams. It has the ability to push us into becoming who we were meant to be by exploring the urges that spring from the seeds of our unique talents and gifts. It has the power to make connections over generations and across time, showing the continuum of human experience and the power of story to move hearts and minds to truth and goodness, acceptance and understanding, awareness and compassion. It has the power to point us towards something higher than ourselves, to the One who bestows our unique gifts, and provides the channels of grace which allow us to recognize and develop them. My grandmother gave me a great gift the day she gave me Little Women, because she placed into my hands a key that helped to unlock the door to my heart, my mind, my talent, my future, and part of my purpose. And that gift is priceless.
What book have you been especially gifted with in your life?