During the year marking the end of a lonely childhood and the start of an awkward adolescence, I fell in love with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Chancing upon the novel provided the first confrontation with a character so familiar, the story seemed to reveal my deepest hopes and desires. It mattered little if fictional Jo March lived during the tumultuous years of the mid-1800s when war threatened to tear the U.S. apart, a world unfamiliar to a girl coming of age in the drug-infused, blue jean clad 1970s. Jo March was a second-oldest daughter, a rebel and a writer. Just like me.
Several years after my love affair with Little Women, I found myself dozing in a 10th grade English class alongside a brood of other disinterested teenagers. Mrs. Steiglitz droned on about the new assignment; outside the bank of windows, spring sunlight mocked the fidgety students trapped in the classroom’s shadows. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Mrs. Steiglitz opening a weighty tome. The book wore a cover so rich a gold it seemed the providence of kings.
Flipping to a page, she read:
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
The phrase’s unfamiliar syntax and striking message dragged me into a proper sitting position. My attention centered on the gold clad book cradled in my teacher’s palms. A disconcerting awareness followed. Not one other student in the somnolent class was similarly mesmerized.
During the following week’s reading of Hamlet the sad majority of students sat bored and unmoved. They were rude travelers ushered into a foreign bazaar whose every peacock color went unappreciated. Shakespeare’s achingly beautiful poetry issued from their mouths in a stilted mess until Mrs. Steiglitz, in a fit of frustration, dispensed with democracy and gave me the honor of reading the second half of the play. Grappling with words heaven-sent, I crossed the border from dull childhood into the divine.
To the willing initiate, story possesses transformative power. To read is to live. Yet for reasons as murky as they are depressing, many human souls never catch the knack.
Ask a bibliophile for a list of her favorite pursuits and reading may sit above travel or parenting or even the joys of romance. She knows she’s a member a secret society. Turning the page unlocks a door that leads into a lion’s den where her life is in danger. Turn the page and she finds herself on a frigate tossed by raging seas, or in ancient Egypt bowing low before a merciless Pharaoh. She dons a gown of Elizabethan England or steps into Jimmy Choo red heels and takes New York by storm.
On the journey inside a book, she becomes an adventurer or a princess or a modern day protagonist grappling against impossible odds. Some days she sheds her human self completely and stalks with a panther’s grace or soars on an eagle’s wings. She draws back the curtain of the ordinary world and slips into a place of extraordinary possibility.
In short, she becomes someone else. In doing so, she enriches the person she already is.
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