‘The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one that makes you think.’ – Harper Lee
The internet is home to many quotes of questionable authenticity, but whether accurate or not, these words speak to my experience of reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
The book, for anyone who doesn’t know – the small few who, like me, didn’t read this one during high school – is about a lawyer, Atticus Finch, defending a black man on trial for the rape of a white woman. In the small southern town of Maycomb in the 1930s, this is a huge deal. The story is told from the perspective of Scout, Atticus’ young daughter, as she and her older brother, Jem navigate the implications of their father’s work as well as the deep rooted race and class prejudices in their small town.
This book utterly overwhelmed me. In a political climate so full of fear and anger and a personal one dominated by cluelessness, Lee’s treatise on acceptance, empathy and love was exactly what I needed. It broke my heart open in the best possible way.
To read about society’s failings – racism, classism, sexism, from the perspective of a child, was so much more effective than I ever thought that it could be. It meant that we saw events, but were detached from them – rather than getting caught up in the anger and resentment we were allowed to see it all as senseless and ridiculous. There is a heart breaking exchange between Scout and Jem, when Jem tells Scout about the categories that people fit into. Scout thinks the idea of categories is stupid, and tells him so. Folks is folks, in her opinion. Jem’s response? He thought the same, until he grew up. As I progressed through the novel I became increasingly protective of Scout’s sense of self. She had it so right at such a young age. The idea of that getting corrupted pained me. It pained Atticus, too.
As the reader, I often understood what Scout was saying before she did. Sometimes I felt sadness she wasn’t yet grown up enough to comprehend. When you’re young and living the sort of life Scout had, it doesn’t occur to you to think that the world is anything less than good. Then you grow up, and the dark corners you never even used to notice appear.
Scout was lucky because she could go home and talk to her dad about it. Speaking of, let me just take a moment to crown Atticus Finch King of the Literary Dads. Everything he says is a quotable life lesson and he lives according to his words. Atticus is the sort of person you should channel when you’re commuting to work. I find in my life, that’s the hardest time of day to be a good person.
Atticus believes in the innate goodness of people, even when it is so clouded with fear that it no longer appears to exist. He believes in doing the right thing. He believes in starting even when you know in your heart you will fail. That is true bravery, as far as he is concerned. He wants more than anything for his children to grow up free from the prejudices that separate his community. For those of us who may be dealing with deadbeat dad issues, reading Atticus at times feels a little bit like you’re stepping on a nail on purpose, but it’s totally worth it. This book helps you crawl out of your own skin for a while and see your life in terms of something much bigger.
More than anything, Atticus Finch and his children inspired me to be better. They reminded me that living in a crappy world doesn’t mean you have to be a crappy person.
“’… an’, Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things… Atticus, he was real nice…’
His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.
‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.’”
There is no way I can do this beautiful book justice. Just go read it.