New post on the draft blog for Insiders: Cape Cod League top 30 prospects for 2010. Also, no Klawchat this week due to the start of the Area Code Games.
I’m a big fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, placing it at #4 on the Klaw 100, but unlike most readers I came to the book relatively late in life, reading the book for the first (and only, for now) time at the age of 29. It was never assigned in school – when I think back on the garbage we had to read for some English classes in lieu of important classics of American and British literature, I wonder what the hell my parents paid property taxes for – and I actually wasn’t an avid reader of fiction between graduation from college and the turn of the century*. When I shifted from non-fiction – and just not reading that many books to begin with – back over to novels, I decided to fill in the gaps in my cultural literacy by reading as many of those “name” books as possible. They didn’t all measure up to their reputations, but Mockingbird exceeded them, and was one of a handful of books that accelerated the renewal of my interest in reading non-comic fiction.
*The book that turned me back on to fiction, putting me on a decade-long tear that saw me read roughly 400 novels across ten years? Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, of course.
Documentary writer and producer Mary Murphy seems to feel much the same about the only literary output of one Nelle Harper Lee and assembled a book called Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird that comprises interviews with 26 writers, celebrities, a politican, and a few people connected with Lee herself on the book, its legacy and the enduring mystery of Lee’s silence, both in her lack of output and her four-decade-plus refusal to give interviews. (Needless to say, she’s not one of the 26.)
Richard Russo, one of my favorite writers, had for me the most interesting essay because of how he talks about the art of writing, not just in how Mockingbird influenced him, but in how a technical analysis of the book misses its greatness – “Great books are not flawless books” – and what aspect of the book hit him the hardest. James McBride, an African-American novelist and musician, offers a passionate defense of the book as great literature, one of the questions Murphy must have posted to every interview subject, while also drawing parallels to John Coltrane when answering the question of why Lee might have chosen to stop writing after one book.
The most fun interview of all of them is Alice Lee, Nelle Harper’s older sister who, at the time of the book’s writing, was still working in her law office every day at the age of 98. With the author herself unwilling to give interviews – she reportedly was upset that one or more interviewers misquoted her in the 1960s and put words or even thoughts into her mouth, but has also indicated that she believes the author should be more or less invisible behind her works – Alice gives some insight as to Harper Lee’s childhood and what aspects of the book are grounded in real people or places.
I was surprised to find that one of the most enjoyable interviews in the book was Oprah Winfrey, whose responses may be the most personal, from her identification with Scout to an encounter with Gregory Peck (“he will always be Atticus to me”) to her plan to persuade Harper Lee to come on the show (fail). Her quote from her lunch with Lee is too priceless for me to repeat here, but it’s quite telling about the author’s attitude towards the celebrity she has so consistently declined. If you want to bounce around Scout, Atticus, & Boo, Andrew Young, James Patterson (really), and Anna Quindlen also offered interesting or insightful comments on the novel.
The introduction, written by Murphy, includes heavy quoting of the 26 essays that follow, and I found that reading it first scooped a number of the most interesting quotes from the interviews; if you pick this book up, skip straight to the first interview, with the actress who played Scout in the film version. If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, you should do so, and then watch the film, and then read this book if you enjoyed those two works as much as I did.
Next up: John Derbyshire’s Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, about the still-unproven (or disproven) hypothesis that bears Riemann’s name.