Tuesday, December 3, 2013

'To Kill a Mockingbird' still sings

I just finished reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the first time.

I'm still note quite sure how I hadn't read it before. I figured it was required reading for every American public school alumni. And I was a dutiful student.* I always read the required reading, no matter how much it pained me (I'm talking to you "The Scarlett Letter" and "A Tale of Two Cities.") 

Growing up, we watched the movie a couple times. I vaguely remember wishing I was as adventurous as Scout and loving the sound of Gregory Peck's voice. 

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it."

I'm left to conclude that the book was never assigned to me. And I never picked it up on my own. It must've been assigned to some member of my family though -- because here in the front cover it's stamped clearly with my alma mater: 


Hope they didn't want this back.
At any rate, it ended up at my house -- probably during one of my parents' pre-moving purges -- when they were unloading tired boxes stuffed with college notebooks or musty toys (if anyone is looking for a plush set of "Animaniacs" dolls, look me up!)

It's been on my book shelves for years and for years I've said I should really read it.

Well, opportunity presented itself when I flew to Austin a few weeks ago. I didn't want to bring the gigantic biography on cancer I've been picking my way through since July -- so I went with a more lightweight classic. 

And I know I'm a little late to the game here, but, wow. 
Every bookshelf should hold
 a care-worn copy of this.

I'm in tears here. In mourning because I have to say goodbye to Scout and Jem and Dill and Atticus and  Calpurnia and Miss Maudie. And because 53 years after Harper Lee wrote about prejudice and justice and human nature it seems like we really haven't come all that far some days. And because children can see the truth -- you know, the guts of a person -- so much more clearly than the rest of us can, and yet we're the one's raising them. 

And because Harper Lee is this perfect writer. The book is so full of life, character and soul and it all seems so effortless. 

"The remainder of the afternoon went by in the gloom that descends when relatives appear," she writes.  Or, "Dr. Reynold's step was young and brisk. Mr. Heck Tate's was not. His heavy boots punished the porch…" Or, "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved reading. One does not love breathing."

She makes writing look like breathing and for that I'm profoundly grateful, awe-stricken and jealous.

Maybe it's a good thing that I never read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in high school. I doubt I would've had the same appreciation then that I have for it now. And I probably would've just checked it off the list of classics I needed to read in this lifetime and never picked it up again. 

Maybe I should give "The Scarlett Letter" a second chance …

My sister Laura has long had a love affair with this book, and when I texted her that I was reading it, she responded: 

"Love that book. I love that family … they are my friends. Enjoy."

I've read a lot of books … not enough … but a lot. And there are a handful of characters that I'd still count as friends -- the Ingalls, the Pevensies, or the kids from Harry Potter. And now the Finches.

And speaking of friends, I was so touched when one of my former co-workers dropped this off with Brad (also a former co-worker!) on his last day of work:



It has the warm, sweet smell of a library and the sound of the crinkling old cellophane wrapping reminds me of hours spent browsing shelves for the next adventure. The inscription warmed my heart:

It's nice to have old friends with old books.

Footnote 1: A huge shout out friend and former colleague Beth Vrabel, who just learned today that her first book, "Pack of Dorks," will be published next October (sounds like one I could relate to).

Footnote 2: Also, congratulations to four-times-and-counting-published-author (another former colleague) Buffy Andrews whose latest (or quasi latest) book "The Christmas Violin" was just released in time for those of you seeking lovely, soul-feeding, holiday-related literary fare. 

*OK I was a dork. A huge, kiss-up, rarely missed a day of school dork. The worst kind of dork.

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