Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book 34 – To Kill A Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

I came across this article about how To Kill A Mockingbird is America’s most overrated book, which reminded me that I still haven’t read it. Luckily, last month while in Seattle, I picked up a cheap copy at a cute used bookshop at Pike Place Market.

Naturally, it is quite easy to hate on a widely popular Pulitzer Prize-winning classic that has been such an endearing influence and favourite amongst white Liberal elites and idealistic law students. Especially when you have Hollywood celebrity types like Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, who named their second child after the girl character Scout (which was actually a nickname), or Jake Gyllenhaal who named his two dogs Atticus Finch and Boo Radley.

The Allen Barra article makes some pretty valid points:

• Its sentiments and moral grandeur are as unimpeachable as the character of its hero, Atticus. He is an idealized version of Ms. Lee's father … Atticus bears an uncanny resemblance to another pillar of moral authority—the Thomas More depicted in Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons"… Atticus does not become a martyr for his cause like Sir Thomas, but he is the only saint in a courtroom full of the weak, the foolish and the wicked. And like Sir Thomas, Atticus gets all the best lines.

• In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained... There is no ambiguity in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad. As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as "an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious."

• Harper Lee's contemporary and fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor (and a far worthier subject for high-school reading lists) once made a killing observation about "To Kill a Mockingbird": "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book."

I agree with all these points, but I still very much enjoyed TKAMB. Sure the novel had some of that “bloodless liberal humanism” which seems a bit dated now, but it was also extremely engaging human drama that hit all the right notes of childhood wish-fulfillment and romantic sentimentality. It's the equivalent of watching a really good Oscar-contending Hollywood film. If I were in my early teens I probably would have loved this book. So I don’t understand the full intent of this article. Yes, it may be overrated as a great work of classic American literature, but it is definitely a very American book. And wasn’t TKAMB always considered a children’s (or young adult) book? Isn’t this why it’s still required reading for junior high school English in America? And can you fault a book for inspiring generations of lawyers and civil rights activists, no matter how idealistic it is? Maybe we should just hate the unimaginative celebs who like to name their babies and pets after their fave TKAMB characters!


Crumbolst said...

Nicely said, Meezly. I really like this book and don't care much about it's shortcomings. It's that good.

OlmanFeelyus said...

I think part of the reason it gets hated on is precisely because it is required reading in high school.

Kate W. Ladell said...

I re-read TKAMB about 6 years ago, and was so grateful that I did. I don't remember liking or disliking it when I read it for school (in 7th Grade). I think that was too young, because I remember being a little confused about some of the plot's twists at the end. But the second time around I absolutely loved it. There are so many worse things to hate on in the the world than TKAMB.