Book #82: To Kill A Mockingbird

This marks, I believe, the third time I’ve read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

The first time, I was in seventh grade. I remember reading it for Mrs. Kraus’s Lit II class in the spring. That was the year that I was really angsty and obsessed with Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I can remember a specific weekend afternoon when sitting in the back of my parents’ van, listening to Pachelbel on my walkman and reading the part when Dill says he wants to marry Scout. Back then, the book felt very important, but I wasn’t sure why.

Eleven years later, on another weekend afternoon, I’m laying on the couch in my apartment, finishing the trial scene and well-aware of what’s going to happen next. The book feels very important, but I’m still not sure why.

I think it’s safe to say that if you went to high school in America, you’ve read (or at least heard of) To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s THE Great American coming-of-age story. In the racially-charged south, Scout grows up in a town dealing with racism and bigotry.

While Scout grows up, she, along with her brother Jem, learns that good people are still subject to evil things, and that things don’t always work out the way they’re “supposed to,” even if they are right, true, and just. It’s a complicated world that’s not as black-and-white as Scout and Jem think, and as they deal with the mystery of their neighbor Boo Radley and watch their father, Atticus, take on a racially-charged case, they become painfully aware of this.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a very, very beloved book. I know many people who’ve read it and loved it. Many of my English professors and classmates at school cited it as an important read during high school. I’ve felt that, too. The first time I read it, in seventh grade it seemed like the most important book in the world. The second time, in college, it also felt very important and meaningful.

This time, I tried to understand why this book is so important to so many people. Here’s the thing – I can’t figure out why. Generations of students have read and loved this book. But I don’t know why. It’s reasonably well-written, but not one of those books where the writing bowls you over and makes you want to quote everything. The plot is decent, but it’s not shocking and, while it deals with racism, that’s not a huge part of the story and, really, it’s just kids growing up. But somehow, this book means something to so many people, all over the world. Myself included.

If it wasn’t a book I loved so much, it would feel a little overrated. Scout’s innocence is touching, and the children’s righteous outrage at the unfair way the world works is touching, but To Kill A Mockingbird, in all honesty, isn’t that different from many other coming-of-age books. The difference, I think, is that we can all relate to those moments in childhood where real-life things, important things, don’t work out how they’re “supposed to.” It’s a heartbreaking part of growing up. Those of us who first read the book when we were young understood what Scout was going through. And now that we’re older, we can always take up the book again and, for an afternoon, feel that way again, even though by now, we know how the world works.

Maybe that’s why To Kill A Mockingbird is so important. Maybe that’s why we’ll keep making kids read it and keep going back to it.

Rating: ****
Up next: Austerlitz

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