Early in 2007 Exclusive Books published a list of 101 Books to Read Before You Die. The list was compiled by the votes of ordinary book readers and therefore subject to the usual failing of Democracy: that the votes of people with no taste count the same as the more discerning individuals among us. As such, I’m sure that a number of novels benefitted from being more recently published and certainly some owed their position more to populism and controversy than literary merit. What we have then is a list of 101 books that a majority have found worthy of recommendation, which in itself is nothing to sneeze at. Being from a literary-minded family (my sister and I were often told to stop reading at the dinner table and for heaven’s sake go get some fresh air) the kin and I set out to read these novels. On the whole, this has been a beneficial endeavour. I have discovered authors and works that have grown my love of reading and the joy of books. I will attempt to write a little something (in no particular order) of my experiences of and with these books.
Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott
In Germany 1864, Max Weber was born. He would later be educated at the University of Heidelburg in law, economics and economic history. These interests would lead him to the new field of Sociology. His first subjects, Ancient Agriculture and Medieval Trade developed into an interest in how religious convictions shaped economic behaviour. This inquiry was to lead to his magnum opus, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Here, Max argued that the industrial explosions of the 16th Century were due to Calvinist thought; that a man must work hard to live up to the salvation given him by God, that idle hands do the Devil’s work and that frugal living is the duty of every Christian. Later on, Miss M. Alcott decided to take the same idea, simplify it a little and teach it to little girls everywhere.
The novel in question deals with the lives of Jo, Mary-Anne, Beth and the little stuck-up one whose name I can’t remember, but which might begin with an A. Since Jo is the only character of real import, I’m just going to call the rest Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottentail. Jo, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottentail are all young girls in America in the 1800’s. Papa is off to war (um, the Crimean maybe?) and Mama is left to care for the young girls. Flopsy, the eldest, is very pretty and will have to deal with falling in love and what it means to run a household; Jo is the tom-boy one and it is her friendship with the rich boy next door which forms the crux of the novel; Mopsy is the good little girl who only wants to stay at home and do some knitting or other womanly work; Little Cottentail is the youngest and is wont to use large words often getting malapropisms all down her shirt. Through each chapter they learn that if they just work hard to be humble, diligent, hard working, godly women then everyone will love them and they will find happiness with a kind and loving man.
To a 22-year-old male, Little Women reads like a Protestant polemic. Every chapter seems to end with a call to piety and a diligent life. There’s even an encounter with a French Catholic maid; her strange ways contrasted with the humility of the girls’. This is not to say that I won’t read this to my little girls when I have some. These are all things I believe in. Yes, even the ones that might be branded slightly ‘sexist’ in this day and age. It’s just that I’m a little too old and cynical to let a one-sided view get away with it. After much thought though, I reached a different conclusion from my initial mild distaste. This is a book for 12-year-old girls and there should be room enough in this great big world of ours for books that simply present a way of living with no apologies or explanations as to its position in a society of relativists and 22-year-old cynics. Its sweet, it’s naive and that’s okay with me.
Little Women is ranked #60 on the Exclusive Books 101 Books to Read Before You Die