J.B. Lippencott & Co, 1960
It’s often said that English and literature teachers are out to torture students with old books, which is why young people are forced to read “classics” against their will. It’s not actually true, but you probably couldn’t convince my high school students of that. It’s also been said by Cliff Fadiman that when you rearead a classic, you don’t see more in the book than there was before, you see more than you than there was before. Put these ideas together and you have me digging up my old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. For the first time in 10 years, I decided to take another turn through one of the greatest American novels of all time.
What I found was a book I thought I’d remembered but so clearly didn’t. I liked it well enough when I was a freshman in high school, but at 14 years old there were so many other things going on. Now what I read was about so much more than the trial of Tom Robinson and how young Scout and her brother Jem watched their father Atticus defend a black man for a crime he didn’t commit in a time and place where everything was defined by one’s race. That’s a huge part to be sure, but Scout actually tells a story that spans four years - the trial only happens over the course of a few days one summer.
This book is full of growing pains and of not understanding. It’s a realization that our world is unfortunate shades of gray, and I don’t think anyone illustrates this better than Jem who is at a time in his life when he starts to see that the world is far more imperfect than he ever could have imagined. Scout is pure emotion, luckily raised in a house of love. And then there is Atticus, a literary hero unlike any other. Is he perfect? No. He’s from an age where there are things that can and can’t be done, and there are some aspects of society he accepts rather than fights to tear down. But overall, he is a good man. He is a fiercely loving father who wants to do right by his children and does the best he can. He is willing to take on incredible burdens because he knows it is the right thing to do and because though he won’t take on everything, it’s clear that he knows the blatant racism of Maycomb’s court is something that he must stand up against and should not be tolerated. He feels that if he doesn't do right by Tom, then he'll never be able to look Scout and Jem in the eye ever again.
It’s a story with humors and heartaches, with justice and injustice, with love and hatred, with kindness and cruelty. And while I’m sure I looked at it when I was 14, I didn’t really see it until I read this book again, with eyes 10 years older and a mind a decade wiser, much more aware of the world. I know how things have changed since Harper Lee penned this tale, and how some things have unfortunately stayed the same.
There’s not more in this book than there was before, but there’s certainly more in me. And if you haven’t read this book before, or you haven’t read it since your own high school days, I can’t urge you enough to pick it up. It’s one of those books that changes lives.
Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading.