I met my closest friend when we were college freshmen. She was from the Boston area and had three sisters, a wise and wonderful mother, and a clergyman father who did wartime service as an Army chaplain. The parallels between her life and a certain classic American novel were uncanny. She even had a sister named Meg.
In those days, it wasn’t the fashion for the young women of Bryn Mawr to admire Little Women. It was treacly, moralistic and far too celebratory of domestic life. But my friend was never one to bow to peer pressure, and she unabashedly loved the novel. She saw her own family in the Marches, but time-traveled to an earlier century when life seemed more exciting and every woe and joy more poignant. And she easily could see herself in the lead character. Although she was the youngest of the sisters, she was no Amy. She was Jo — brilliant, stubborn, deeply curious and honest to a fault.
One day in December of our freshmen year, I happened upon a used book sale on campus. Boxes of dusty old books were regularly donated by alumnae cleaning out their attics, or more often, their heirs cleaning out their houses. While sifting through stacks of battered volumes, I came upon an ancient edition of Little Women. I flipped through the pages to check for mold or mites — it looked okay — then paused on the flyleaf. There was a handwritten inscription with a slight backward slant: L. M. Alcott.
I didn’t know if Louisa May ever went on tour or signed stock in bookstores or did any Costco-type events, but I felt certain that an autographed copy of her most famous work was a rare find. I bought it on the spot for a dollar.
Now I had a decision to make. What to do with my prize? It probably had some pecuniary value that I, a poor scholarship student, could have enjoyed. And even if I couldn’t resell it, ownership of it was worth bragging rights for an English major and future novelist like myself. My friend came from a wealthy family and majored in sociology; neither the money nor the cachet would mean as much to her. But I knew what the contents of that book meant to her, and how much it would mean for her to know that Alcott had put her name to that very copy. So I wrapped it up and gave it to my friend for Christmas.
In the years since, I’ve come to realize that I was the true beneficiary of that gifting experience. I learned a lesson — not that it’s better to give than to receive (I hope I already knew that one), but rather that there’s a difference between marketplace value and the real value of an object. In this season of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and, soon enough, post-holiday clearance sales, that’s a lesson I try to remember.
I especially try to remember it when it comes to books. The value of a book can’t be found in its sales figures, or the size of the author’s advance, or even the number of prestigious awards it snags. The value of a book lies in its ability to speak to a reader across miles and years and to win a special place in her heart. And you can’t put a price tag on that.
(But Deb, if you’re reading this, an autographed copy of Little Women recently sold at auction for $8,900. Just so you know.)
This essay originally appeared on Bookreporter.com, as one of their 2018 Holiday Blogs.