Over Christmas break, I made the pilgrimage with my mom and sisters to see the latest Little Women adaptation. I found the film absolutely brilliant; director Greta Gerwig reimagines and restructures the story in a way that translates beautifully for a twenty-first century audience. I (a Jo, through and through) began crying right around the halfway mark and did not stop until the credits rolled. Even my youngest sister (an absolute Amy at eleven years old), whom we had to persuade to join us, admitted that she “didn’t even get bored!” Before we saw the movie, I made a point to read the novel because the last time I had attempted it was in elementary school, and Alcott’s 1800s moralistic plot line didn’t captivate me the way the then-new Harry Potter series did. Quite frankly, I thought Little Women was dull, so I gave up halfway through. This time around, however, I was awestruck—in both the novel and the latest movie rendering—by the realistic family relationships, the characters’ genuine goodness (without seeming saccharine), and the simple assurance of knowing the plot before it happens. The difference, of course, was not in the text, but in myself.
I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of revisiting lately. This year I’ve assisted in teaching British Literary History and Intro to Literary Theory, two courses I took myself when I began the English major several years ago. In preparing for this work, I’ve had the opportunity to revisit texts that I had not read since the first time I encountered them. And, because I’m an avid margin-writer and digital hoarder, I’ve also delved into my textual comments and (deeply embarrassing) previous response papers and literary analysis assignments. It’s a fascinating process, skipping across a chasm of nearly six years of incremental shifts to see the drastically different person I was when I first came to BYU. I can see my cognitive dissonance in my response to Marxist theory and the epiphany behind the tiny, hand-scribbled question in the margins of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” that reads, “Am I a feminist?” In the subtext of my barely-legible notes I recall the student who had strong reservations about switching to the English major, who saw school as a mere hurdle, and who was in the process of a transformation she couldn’t yet recognize. As I revisit these texts, it’s been especially interesting to see which Wildean epigrams still make me laugh, which of Saussure’s concepts have become clearer, and which philosophical ideas I’ve adopted or discarded along the way.
Zadie Smith speaks of this kind of personal change in her essay, “Some Thoughts on Attunement,” in which she reflects on her own process of becoming receptive to Joni Mitchell’s music:
But when I think of that Joni Mitchell-hating pilgrim…I truly cannot understand the language of my former heart. Who was that person? Petulant, hardly aware that she was humming Joni, not yet conscious of the transformation she had already undergone. How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur?
The shift toward openness to Mitchell felt drastic for Smith because, as she writes, “I didn’t come to love Joni Mitchell by knowing anything more about her, or understanding what an open-tuned guitar is, or even by sitting down and forcing myself to listen and re-listen to her songs. I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely.” Yet, however untraceable, there were certainly life experiences that Smith gained between her various exposures to Mitchell’s songs, experiences that shifted her perspective on the singer’s works. In short, by the time she came to love and appreciate “California,” Smith herself was a different person.
And then there are the texts that remain—and transform—with us. Scripture is, naturally, the first that comes to my mind. Like the works I’ve studied over the course of my college career, my set of scriptures holds marginal notes, highlighted passages, corresponding memories, but because my experience with the books is not a “return” but a “growing with,” the verses feel more aligned with my current self. There is a continuity in my experience with the words, which have become so interwoven into my life that they feel genuinely part of me. I believe that this textual relationship can exist with secular texts, as well.
A recent episode of This American Life featured the complex story of a woman named Shamyla, who grew up partially in the United States with her adoptive parents (her aunt and uncle) before she was taken back by her birth parents and held in Pakistan for an extended period of time. While she was in Pakistan, she wasn’t allowed to read or own books, but she obtained a copy of Little Women—which she hid in broken sections in her mattress and read secretly. Shamyla admits, “It was the book of my life. It was the only book I had to escape. It was the only book that I had to actually read over and over again. And I kind of memorized it.” She even turns to a random page in the book when she has a question or decision, and reads the first passage she finds for her answer—a practice familiar to many of us in our personal scripture study.
Similarly, on the Preach podcast, host Lee Hale discussed with Rainn Wilson (who plays Dwight Schrute) the way people voraciously watch and rewatch The Office. Hale noted,
People aren’t going to church. People aren’t reading scripture. And the thought came to me: what is scripture besides stories that we reflect on daily and guide the way we live our life? And I thought, I think that we might be at the point where some people are consuming The Office, these stories, almost at the level of scripture. Almost like modern day parables, right? And you know the characters fit such distinct roles. There’s strife and stakes and morality. And I just thought, I wonder, like, if that’s kind of the role it plays in some people’s lives right now. Almost like this parable, instructive, daily consumption.
Cliché as it is, I count myself part of the audience that rewatches this show over and over, though I cannot explain exactly draws me back time and time again, even as my To-Watch List grows ever longer. And undoubtedly as scholars of the arts we all have texts—both secular and spiritual—that resonate with us in this way. Books and movies and television shows and paintings that seem to reveal new meanings and lessons (or remind us of old insights gained) the more we consume them, whether that consumption be constant and devotional, or a significant return after years of distance and growth away from the text.
While I’m certainly not the first to examine this interaction, I remain genuinely fascinated with the ways that art can influence us at the same time that we glean meaning from a given work. And, I’m especially intrigued with how that interaction changes when we return to the same texts over time, tracking our own progression as humans. As I look back, I feel the impulse to look forward as well: What new understandings will emerge when the next Little Women adaptation rolls around twenty years from now? Or the next time I listen to “Both Sides Now”? When I revisit Joyce’s Ulysses, will I be embarrassed at the marginal comments I’m writing now? Will the story of Lazarus always make me cry? While I cannot possibly imagine what transformations will come in the future, I trust that rereading will offer me what it always has: the recognition of a familiar text, and the re-cognition of what it means to me.
This post was written by Morgan Lewis, Humanities Center Intern.