So far, every woman I’ve asked has read “Little Women,” and every man I’ve asked hasn’t. What’s up?
Two of the men, when pressed for an explanation, immediately said, “The title!” as if that were obvious.
With the women, not only have they read the book, but in many cases they have read it more times than they cared to keep track of. I am one of those.
There was a period in my life, from the age of 11 until four or so years later, when I was always reading it. When I finished, I’d start again, without even getting up from my chair or, more likely, my bed. I read it obsessively, at home, at school and on vacation in the back of our station wagon, instead of looking at the mountains.
“Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott’s unhurried tale of 15 years in the lives of the four March sisters, is such a lovable, memorable book to me that I can’t quite take in the fact that half the people I know, the male half, have no experience of it. It doesn’t make sense.
In a world where nothing is the same as it was 20 or 10 or even two years ago, how can this one circumstance remain true? It must be the only one that has: Men aren’t interested in “Little Women.”
As a practical matter, of course, they’re not going to read it now, as adults. It’s not an adult book. What’s missing is the experience of their already having read it as adolescents, so the situation is technically uncorrectable for adult men.
These observations were prompted, of course, by the Christmas release of yet another movie version of the book. I saw it for the usual reason: I hoped it would move me in the same way that the book did. However, a medley of greatest-hits moments from the book, no matter how tenderly filmed, is no substitute for the book itself. But I had to see it.
Now, if there are any men out there who feel they have to see it, I haven’t met them yet. And beyond my incomprehension of their lack of interest, I have to say it bugs me a little that they feel so disinclined. The title, yes. And the fact that this is a movie from a 100-year-old book about girls? Hey, I saw “The Last of the Mohicans,” and nobody had to drag me there. And the number of movies I’ve seen in my life, and even just in the past few months, featuring all-male (“Cobb”) or nearly all-male (“Hoop Dreams,” “Interview With the Vampire”) worlds is considerable.
Certainly one of the reasons so many girls like “Little Women” is that it’s such a rare and enjoyable thing to see females in fiction as we know them in life - as complicated and whole people.
One of the real pleasures of “Little Women” is its utter unselfconsciousness about its female universe. Alcott wasn’t making a point. She simply wrote about four characters she found fascinating, and expected others would, too.
When I was hired, 20 years ago, as an assistant children’s book editor, one of the first things my boss told me was that while girls will read books about boys or girls, boys will not read books about girls. Publishers put out all-girl books at their peril. I didn’t like her saying it. It made boys seem dense.
But if it’s not true, why don’t they read “Little Women”? It’s a terrific book. It’s rich and subtle and real. Certain scenes capture delicate adolescent moments in a way that stays in your consciousness for a long time.
“Little Women” is not “War and Peace.” And I guess it’s too much to think that any day soon, adolescent boys will be handing the book around, turning their friends onto it. (“Hey, what are you reading?” “‘Little Women.”’ “Cool! Can I borrow it when you’re done?”) But it’s an involving drama that continues to be read not for historical interest or even literary interest but, more than a century after its first publication, for enjoyment.
At least by half the world.