The book I've always meant to read: To Kill a Mockingbird

Posted on 1st July 2015 by Rob Chilver
With the news of Go Set a Watchman, one of our booksellers decided it was finally time to read Harper Lee's original classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

There are certain books that you always mean to read. They're there, on your reading horizon, being spoken of by critics and public alike, but somehow you never quite get round to picking them up. For me To Kill a Mockingbird was always one of them, universally acclaimed as a great work of literature but always destined to read after my next read. And then the next...

Asking around, people my age had all read it and would sing its praises. So how did I miss out? To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't on my curriculum whilst at school and I even managed to go an entire university degree with large elements of American literature without approaching it there either. Perhaps my lecturers had assumed that we'd already visited Maycomb in our years of studies? Also for as long as I could remember, I had been culturally aware of Harper Lee's classic novel.  The image I had of it in my mind, from newspapers or any articles mentioning it, was of that famous black and white still from the film, with Atticus and Tom sitting next to one another in the courtroom, awaiting the important decision. I thought I knew the plot and what it was about so why read it when other books could warrant my attention? 

It was when the news of Go Set A Watchman's publication broke that decided now was the time. Finally I decided I pick it up and settle down to read Lee's novel. There's a certain inbuilt pressure when approaching one of these highly acclaimed books - everyone says it is a great work of literature but would I like it? Could anything possibly live up to the hype? What if, after all these years, I didn't like it? Would I then be a different sort of outsider when it came to Lee's book?

Trying to put these questions aside, I began to read.  After reading the final pages I can safely say I loved it. It was exactly what I was hoping. I discovered a story that was a pure joy to read as Lee brought these wonderful characters to life. As I read I wanted Atticus to be my Dad and I wanted to be there and play alongside Scout, Jem and Dill on the streets as they enjoyed their long hot summers. Somehow it was even better than I'd actually imagined it could be and I'm annoyed with myself now that I didn't read it much sooner. 

Perhaps what surprised me most was that I'd assumed from that famous black and white still that the novel would mostly be about the courtroom drama. I'd assumed that these scenes would dominate the book and that everything else would navigate around it. It's true that the trial, and the examination of race and justice in the process, does run heavily throughout the book, but the actual judicial process, of sitting in court, is brief. Where Lee excels is managing to juggle the childlike innocence of Scout and Jem with the serious nature of Tom's case that affects the entire town. The question of race casts a long shadow over the bright, sun-filled days of their childhood. 

I've waited into my thirties to read To Kill a Mockingbird and as I said before, I wish I could have come to it sooner. Perhaps to have read it when I was still at school, living in a small village with summer after summer of school holidays to enjoy and explore, it might have spoken to me in a very different way than it already does. But now I can enjoy it as the truly great novel that it is and I can keep returning to it time and time again. Plus now I've only a fortnight to endure, not years of waiting and wondering, before I can revisit Atticus and Scout in Go Set a Watchman.


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