Library Director’s Notebook
Fifty years is a long time for a book to stay in print, particularly in today’s world of cheaply printed books and online publishing. It’s a rare book that lasts even a few years after its initial publication, as all the remaindered books found in book store sales can attest. Yet there are some books so powerful and so memorable that fifty years of continuous publication can well be called only the beginning of its long and honored life.
Such a book is the American classic by Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird. Published fifty years ago, Lee’s book is imprinted on the psyche of pretty much every American, who either read it in school or discovered and cherished it later as an adult. For those few who were unfortunate never to have read the book, the superb movie starring Gregory Peck, released in 1962 may have been their personal encounter of the story of Scout, Jem, Atticus and Boo.
I chose the word “encounter” very consciously, because to read this remarkable book is truly to encounter it, the way one would encounter any other life-changing event. I have read many essays and first person accounts of readers recalling their “first time” with To Kill A Mockingbird. You would think they had almost had a mystical experience as they read the book. They can remember how old they were, what they were doing in their lives, and what they felt as they encountered the book, even if that encounter was literally decades ago.
What is it about this most American of books that leaves such a huge impression on the hearts and minds of its readers? Is it the character of Atticus who comes to symbolize not just the perfect father but the quintessential man of honor? Is it the mystery of Boo Radley and his silent years of torment that leave him unscathed as a caring human being? Is it the horrible court trial of Tom Robinson that shows more than any other story the cruel and callous injustices of white juries and black men? Is it the humor of the adult narrator, remembering her childhood and her on again, off again sibling rivalry with her older brother Jem? Or is it Scout herself, the feisty, fists up girl who gives new meaning to the words irrepressible, precocious, and bluntly honest?
Harper Lee has admitted that she borrowed from some of her own childhood experiences and impressions in creating the story and its characters and set the story in the sleepy southern town of her own early years. Yet the book is about much more than a single town or a single family or a single momentous experience. To Kill A Mockingbird is about the quest we all embark upon as children as we seek to understand the confusing adult world around us; a world that we may come to realize is not as perfect, as logical, or as fair-minded as we would like to believe. Even with such discoveries, our love for our families, friends, and our communities may still hold strong, perhaps feel even more vital and necessary when the world presents us with dispiriting disillusionment and inconsistency.
As long as there are children like Scout who even as adults keep their faith with life, even when they come to understand how tough life can be, we will still have a place for courage, faith, and compassion. And as long as there are readers who want to be moved and changed by books of simple beauty and compelling honesty, To Kill A Mockingbird will remain in print; and more importantly, be read and re-read with passion and gratitude for countless years to come.