On Reading America’s Favorite Book for the First Time
This post is part of our Harper Lee Reading Day: a celebration of one of the most surprising literary events of our lifetime, the publication of her new book, Go Set a Watchman. Check out the rest right here.
To Kill a Mockingbird is not the best book to read out of school at age 24. First of all, everyone thinks you’ve already read it (and with sales at a million copies per year, the shock that there’s still a former public-school-attending American out there who hasn’t read it is understandable). Second, it’s a book heavy with expectations; every reader I’ve encountered is effusively enamored with the novel. And that’s really all I knew of it before sitting down last weekend to finally read America’s favorite book. So I expected to be stunned, knocked sideways, floored. As I told my friends and coworkers I was finally reading it I heard the same breathless question again and again, “Do you love it??”
As a bookseller I am evangelical for the books I’ve read—usually magical realism and domestic fabulism if not straight up sci-fi/fantasy. Ask me what I’ve loved recently and I will keep you for a minimum of five minutes gushing over the brilliance that is Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Ask me my all-time favorite book or author and I will gush over Kelly Link’s fantastically weird short fiction (and show you my tattoo, insisting that it is physical proof of her stories’ greatness). Ask me how I felt about To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and I think I’m going to get quiet—at least for a few weeks, until the book has had a chance to course through me.
Now hold on Lee-lovers, set down your pitch forks. Let the record show I very much liked To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s hard for me to say loved; it’s hard for me to match the enthusiasm of (seemingly) all other readers. But I don’t think the root of our feelings are different. If you’ll allow me a metaphor: the books I usually love hit me like a double-shot espresso; To Kill a Mockingbird warmed me slowly (and thoroughly) like a hot cup of tea. But this small novel was subtler than the ones I’m evangelical for, and it feels—to me—difficult to loudly extol something that made me feel so quiet and thoughtful.
As I read To Kill a Mockingbird I was expecting—based on the reactions of friends—to reach a point where the book hit me, where I felt the inescapable need to effuse over it. I was three chapters away from finishing when I began to worry I wouldn’t have the expected reaction. But Lee’s novel just wasn’t lighting a fire in me; instead it moved through me, slow and sweet. Though stakes are high throughout the book, Scout’s childish perspective kept my emotions tempered. Not to say she doesn’t react strongly to everything around her, but she doesn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation and time she’s living in. She is thoughtful, ever-observant, wise beyond her years in a way she may not realize but the reader certainly does.
Scout’s reaction to finally meeting Boo Radley—a shut-in whom she’s feared and fantasized about since chapter one—exemplifies the novel’s tone, and reflects my personal reaction nicely. The realization that she’s finally met the man who has intrigued her for years doesn’t knock Scout sideways; instead she takes it in stride, allowing childish fantasies to reemerge, but keeping them to herself. “Hey, Boo,” she says simply. What a perfect way to show how Scout has grown so much in so little time. And how she stands on his porch, looking at her small life through the eyes of Boo Radley, sees her small dramas play out just outside his window. She recalls the beginning of her story with an almost nostalgic thoughtfulness that belies her age.
See, reader? I may not want to gush over the profundity of Harper Lee’s first (and until recently, only) novel, but it has affected me in the way you insisted it would. The ending, like the rest of the book, is still seeping through me—like a warm cup of tea for the brain.
What about you? Did you feel like thrusting this book into every stranger’s hand after reading it, to spread the joy? Or did you want to sit quietly with it for a while, unpacking it. If you can still remember, I’d love to hear your initial reactions. Or perhaps you’ve never read it at all? I’d like to hear from you most of all.