CULTURE & ARTS

The Emergency Book Club Reads 'To Kill A Mockingbird' For The First Time

Spoiler alert: It's pretty good!

Claire: Welcome to our first meeting of Emergency Book Club, the book club for literary critics who rarely plan more than three days in advance for seminal publishing events. Here we all are: Three 20-something culture writers who have never read To Kill a Mockingbird. Whew, that was hard to say. Thank heavens we have each other to confide in. If this got out, we’d never work in this town again.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 13:  Atmosphere at and event celebrating Harper Lee and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' at Barnes & Noble Union
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 13: Atmosphere at and event celebrating Harper Lee and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' at Barnes & Noble Union Square on April 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

After waking up in a sweaty panic last week, realizing that Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s much-anticipated sequel/prequel/first draft/slashfic to To Kill a Mockingbird, was on sale today, July 14, rather than at some misty date in the future as I’d envisioned, I knew this meeting would have to take place ASAP. Our ignorance of Harper Lee’s work had reached the level of workplace emergency. Let no one say we shirk our responsibilities as professional consumers of fine art.

To be honest, I’m a crusty old codger, and I generally don’t read books that I should’ve read in high school now that I’m over 18. That’s child’s play. So I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from To Kill a Mockingbird. But I was forced to eat crow. Human adult readers, this book totally holds up! Like, if you didn’t read it when you were 14, it’s totally worth a weekend on the couch to read it now, says this 27-year-old. Colton, Maddie, did you agree?

Maddie: I do, but unopposed as I am to re-reading Salinger stories every few years, I was probably a likelier candidate to enjoy a classic told from a child’s perspective than you. Although, unlike Holden, Scout is relating events from a vantage point of age and wisdom -- as she learns from Atticus' teachings, she’s able to make sense of things once she’s put some distance between herself and the events of her past.

I put off reading To Kill a Mockingbird for a long time, because when I asked people who love it exactly why they love it, their responses usually involved reverence for Atticus, which I took as a bad sign. A personal connection with a character is great and all, but fictional buddies do not a good book make. But I was pleasantly surprised! I don’t remember summer reading assignments being funny, or relevant to contemporary life (or my teenage idea of contemporary life, anyway). To Kill a Mockingbird was both of those things. So, if you for some reason missed out on a chunk of the typical high school canon, this would be a great place to start. What’d’ya think, Colton?

Colton: I have to say I was pretty skeptical to begin with. I definitely fall into the “different strokes for different folks” camp when it comes to the right age to read books -- and most of the time reading something intended for a “younger” age has left me disappointed, even upset. Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse springs to mind. I identified with the book and its protagonist so strongly in high school, but found it sort of appalling, navel-gazing, and, well, narcissistic when I revisited it in college. Plus I’m just wary of any book that everyone loves -- it’s an intolerable anti-mainstream-culture thread of my personality.

But I’d been dealing with years of appalled looks when friends referenced Atticus and I’d have to admit I’d never read the book. I’m a total sucker for filling in the holes in my literary canon, and for avoiding public humiliation when it comes to literary knowledge. So I was all in for emergency book club. I wouldn’t say that I was blown away by the book, but I was pleasantly surprised and wouldn’t consider it an onerous or unwanted read by any means. I think part of what makes it enjoyable for adults is that you have these two vastly different poles of knowledge that intermingle: the adult, retrospective Scout and the young Scout. They’re aware of very different social and political dynamics, they use different vocabulary -- and you get the pleasure of watching those two poles slowly get closer and closer together as Scout grows up. It’s the sort of psychological complexity that I doubt I would have recognized reading this book in middle school.

Claire: It is pretty odd to suddenly have reference points for previously meaningless names like “Atticus Finch” and “Scout” and “Boo Radley” that I’ve been hearing all my life. For that alone, my weekend in sweatpants doing high school assigned reading paid for itself.

** File ** In this file photo, Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a bl
** File ** In this file photo, Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird." The film is among the American Film Institute's best courtroom drama movies. (AP Photo)

Using a young Scout as a narrator for such an adult story creates a weird tension. She doesn’t understand what’s happening all the time, but we, the adult readers, generally do, from what she relates of her elders’ words and behaviors. Yet she’s able to recall the most significant moments and conversations and use language far beyond her comprehension -- at one point, she even admits to using a slur that means basically nothing to her. Aside from the shifting narrative standpoint, this seems to be partly because her father (Atticus, who I’ve also known as Gregory Peck throughout my life, though that name, for obscure reasons, does not appear in the book), treats his children like tiny adults, addressing them with erudite, legalistic terms. Scout, as a result, is an odd blend of country hell-raiser, who starts fights and slings half-understood jibes, and precocious intellectual. This is probably the combination of traits calculated for maximum adorableness in a prepubescent female character. Like, irresistible. Come on.

Maddie: For sure. I wanted to give her a hug, or a five.

Also, I guess one purpose of the kid narrator is to put social injustices in stark terms, without the jargon of the adult world. Scout is a great thinker but admits that the rigidity of school puts her off, so who better to shoot us straight when it comes to right and wrong?

The dual vantage points also add a dose of humor, which I was surprised by. My favorite scene that fused Scout past with Scout present begins with the summer when Dill never showed up. He writes to her to tell her he’s found a new dad, and paragraphs are devoted to her devastation. She concludes that she stayed inconsolable for two days -- an eternity for a kid, a blink for an adult. The sentiment isn’t entirely earnest or entirely humorous -- it’s somehow both. How lovely!

It’s one of many scenes that I found myself laughing along with. Claire and I were chatting about how Scout’s ham costume incident read like a skit from “Arrested Development.” But I can’t decide whether Lee’s humor was meant to make a tough pill easier to swallow, or whether or not that’s a good thing.

Colton: One of the great things about a child’s perspective is that it lets the book off the ethical hook for incorporating humor and stark, non-PC language. We can’t really blame the narrator (she’s a kid! she doesn’t know any better!), so we get this rawness to the experience and especially the racial dynamics. Her innocence also shows us just how ridiculous some of the constructs are -- which is something that I always love about child narrators. They just don’t understand why it would be weird for them to go to Calpurnia’s church or why Boo Radley should be treated with so much disdain. Scout doesn’t even understand class or gender until her Aunt forces them on her. So her child’s perspective is the perfect balance to Atticus, who arrives at his values through erudition and reason -- but who basically ends up with the same ideas as a kid who doesn’t know any better. It’s kind of like that young child at the family gathering who brings up the white elephant without thinking, who totally gets an awkward moment -- and has no problem announcing it to everyone.

Claire: Two things actually shocked me while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and you guys just perfectly teed me up for both of them: Scout and Jem don’t seem as innocent and idealistic about racial issues as I expected, and Scout spends what feels like a solid 25 percent of the book in a ham costume. Let me repeat that once more: a HAM COSTUME. It is a contraption made of chicken wire, covered with fabric, which is painted to resemble a ham. When it’s on, she can’t see or move very well, and she can’t take it off. And she looks like a ham. Basically, To Kill a Mockingbird is unexpectedly hilarious at times, like the movie spoof version of itself (“What if we had them do this dramatic walk home in the darkness, but she’s wearing a huge ham costume for some contrived reason??” “Yeah! Badass!”).

But back to the less-than-innocent children. Scout resists certain boundaries that conflict with what she wants to do -- she wants to wear overalls, she wants to be able to invite over whomever she wants -- but she also casually says dismissive things about “n*****s” that aren’t unusual for the time, but don’t smack of the unsullied, unprejudiced child heroine we might want. She’s just a kid, but she’s already absorbed, easily, that black people belong in a different part of town, in a different church, and that they won’t be eating at the table with her and her family. Humanity sucks.

Speaking of humanity sucking, Colton and I were chatting earlier and realized that we’re among the first people to read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time with a whole new, gritty lens: We’d already read those initial reviews of Go Set a Watchman, which revealed that Atticus, in his old age, is a curmudgeonly bigot. I may never have the beautifully idealized white savior image of Atticus in my head that many others have enjoyed -- but maybe toppling that idol is more realistic anyway. Nearly all real white heroes are more flawed than we’re willing to admit -- both emancipator Abraham Lincoln and Civil Rights Act champion Lyndon Johnson purportedly held personally racist views, and apparently Atticus joins their ranks. Maddie? 

This book cover released by Harper shows "Go Set A Watchman," a follow-up to Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird." The book w
This book cover released by Harper shows "Go Set A Watchman," a follow-up to Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird." The book will be released on July 14. (AP Photo/Harper)

Maddie: Yeah. I really can’t imagine how Watchman will reconcile the glowing image readers have of Atticus -- myself now included -- with that of a bigot. Atticus in Mockingbird might’ve made a few cringeworthy observations -- it’s strange, for example, that he laughs about women not being able to serve on a jury (they’re just so chatty!) -- but for the most part he serves as his kids’ moral compass. While reading this weekend I set out to dog-ear any evidence of Atticus’s shaky principles, and found two or three potentially hazy moments, at most.

Throughout the book, Scout challenges boundaries that apply to her personally (and heck, who wouldn’t? Ms. Caroline sounds like a Professor Umbridge in the making), but struggles to see which boundaries outside of herself warrant questioning. Like Claire said, she rattles off ignorant comments without thinking twice.

That’s where Atticus comes in -- he keeps telling her to walk around in other people’s shoes, to put those critical thinking abilities to good use rather than just to torment her poor, stodgy Aunt. And by the end, he succeeds. I mean, that’s kind of the point of the book, no? She finally realizes that Boo Radley, although different from her, isn’t scary, or somehow lesser. What good will it really do to turn that conception of Atticus on its head? In Mockingbird, he’s so infallible, he’s really more of a symbol than a character -- and an important one to introduce to young readers.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

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