To Love a Mockingbird
July 19, 2007
?Mom, which one of us do you love best?? It?s a question my mother would never answer, but each of us had our suspicions -- depending on which of us had just pitched marbles into her demitasse set (oldest brother), taken the pinking shears to her hand-sewn curtains to see the zig-zag pattern (me), or scratched his name backward -- to avoid detection -- into the hallway wall (older brother). Still, despite moments of being in or out of favor, none of us ever earned a declared status of favorite.
I don?t have children. I do, however, at middle age, have a child?s habit of secretly personifying inanimate objects -- such as books. My husband has caught on to this, and while not suggesting therapy outright, he has hinted that this is something I should have gotten over somewhere between Barbie and The Courtship of Eddie?s Father.
It?s not as if I stand in the stacks and have conversations with Louisa May Alcott. But I have been known to look at a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and whisper, ?Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,? by way of a greeting. To the book.
And yet, I am able to drive a car and hold a responsible job. Go figure.
I am the Director of Communications here at the National Endowment for the Arts, and it?s my department that tells the world about the Big Read, among our many other worthy NEA endeavors.
To me, while a book, a song, a painting, or a -- wait for it -- Broadway musical may not have a beating heart or knowing brain, it has a life. One that affects my life. Unlike my mother, I am able to pick favorites. (But keep this to yourselves. I don?t want The Wizard of Earthsea to feel bad that I like The Age of Innocence better.) I spend as much time with novels as I do with friends. And when I put one down, I need a day or two before I?m ready to pick up another. I need some time to reflect on our conversation. I?m not quite ready to say goodbye.
Of all our Big Read books, I do have a favorite. It?s To Kill a Mockingbird. I?ve read and reread it. I?ve watched and rewatched the movie. I named my cat Atticus. (I said I don?t have children.)
I?ve read some of the learned arguments about why it doesn?t really deserve its vaunted position in the American literary cannon. From Tom Mallon?s 2006 New Yorker essay: ?More troublesome than the dialogue, Lee's narrative voice is a wildly unstable compound??, to Truman Capote?s alleged, ?I, frankly, don?t see what all the fuss is about.? Although I?m a fan of both Mallon and Capote, I don?t care what they say. To Kill a Mockingbird is my sentimental favorite.
It?s a book I first read somewhere around the fifth or sixth grade. It?s the book that took me from The Hardy Boys (I just never could get into Nancy Drew -- even if Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene were the same person) and Little Women into the world of grown up literature -- a trip I wasn?t that eager to make.
I confess fully and ashamedly to being a lazy child. Always doing what was required and no more, and if there were a way I could do less, I would--including reading. I was happy to read -- I just didn?t want to work at it. (Embarrassing disclosure: the first time I read Call of the Wild was in a Classic Comic Book.) And I was happier to watch I Love Lucy reruns than I was to read.
It was my marble-pitching oldest brother -- one of those so-smart-he-skipped-a-grade overachievers who handed me his paperback copy of Mockingbird and said, ?Read this.? I did. Then he gave me The Yearling. I read that. Then The Member of the Wedding. Then A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then 0 Pioneers! Then Country of the Pointed Firs. Then The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Then eventually Tom Jones and all of Jane Austen. (Okay, I also read Valley of the Dolls and Love Story but I swear I never picked up Jonathan Livingston Seagull.) I expanded into plays reading all of Arthur Miller, Eugene O?Neill, and Tennessee Williams.
And yes, I talk to them all. Including in dialects, where appropriate. I can?t help it. And to be honest, I don?t want to. The characters in these books are as real to me as my childhood imaginary friend, Judy.
With the Big Read, our goal may not be a nation of readers conversing with their little friends from literature, but it is bringing the joy of discovery of good books -- and good friends -- to people who either have forgotten that simple pleasure or who never have had the pleasure. We are eager to have people experience the possibilities of language and storytelling, the fun of discussing, agreeing and disagreeing, the power of broadened perspective and of new conversations and conversions.
Reading moved Montag from being a ?fire man? to a thinking man. If I lived in Ray Bradbury?s world of Fahrenheit 451, I would go into the woods and memorize To Kill a Mockingbird. From ?When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow...,? to ?...and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.? And then Scout, Judy, and I would go talk about it some more?.