October 31, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A MockingbirdTo Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My rating: ★★★★★

Sitting down to write this review, I feel a bit silly. I mean, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic; it's been read, analyzed, and critiqued since the day it was published. What more could I possibly add to what's already been said countless times? The answer, of course, is nothing of import. I can't offer any astounding new idea or interpretation, nor do I have the literary background necessary to garner any respect for my views. At its core, there's nothing particularly unique about my opinion; but everyone who reads a particular book has an individual experience. Here's mine.

To Kill a Mockingbird was assigned to me as required reading for my tenth grade English class. I didn't read it. After all, if one were to poll high-schoolers on their required-reading experiences, the response would overwhelmingly negative. It's no secret that many teenagers are not going to particularly enjoy the books assigned to them in school--either because the assigned books genuinely aren't interesting to them, because the books are too difficult (or, more rarely, too easy) for their reading level, or because they don't want to be told what to read.

I'm in the third camp. Though I've loved to read for as long as I can remember, I hate being told what to read. I've had experience with some truly boring books before, but my refusal to read school-assigned books wasn't the result of those. It was the simple fact that I didn't want people picking my books for me.

So I gave To Kill a Mockingbird a pass during the 2008-09 school year. The school system made it easy for me: I'm reasonably intuitive, so multiple choice and short-answer quizzes were just a matter of picking up the little hints scattered across the page, and I'm fairly good at "bullshitting", so essay tests were as simple as picking a key phrase out of the prompt and building an argument around it with what I knew from pop-culture osmosis, talking about the book with other students, and the foreknowledge of what kinds of arguments usually got high scores. What I absolutely couldn't answer, I skipped. My grades didn't reflect the evasion.

It helped that we watched the movie. You know the one: the black-and-white, 1962 picture staring Gregory Peck. It's never a good idea to take novel-based tests based on an adaptation, but familiarity with the bones of a plot certainly helps.

I ended up graduating without ever reading To Kill a Mockingbird  I didn't really think much of it; maybe I'd dodged a bullet in the form of a boring book, or maybe I'd skipped out on something I'd really enjoy. It could've gone either way, and I didn't really care. I knew enough about the plot from the movie and my friends that following up on the book didn't make it anywhere near my immediate to-do list.

That is, until I set up the GR Shelf Challenge for myself. In September of 2012, I found myself browsing Goodreads at random; with no distinct purpose in mind, I meandered over to the Shelves/Genres. I'd seen them before, but this time it sparked an idea in my head; I was already doing monthly themed reads (I run the Read by Theme book club, as a matter of fact), but I had been thinking about tackling a secondary challenge. I hadn't found one I favored... until I that moment.

The GR Shelf Challenge is simple: go through the list of shelves, starting with the most popular and working one's way down to the least popular. Read the most popular book of one shelf every month. Review it, and you're done.

When I looked at the To Read shelf, the first book on it that I hadn't read was To Kill a Mockingbird  So it was time to unbury my copy and read the book I'd avoided for four years.

I'm glad I did. To Kill a Mockingbird is leagues better than I expected it to be. What did I expect? Most prominently, I had thought the book would be more "legal story" than "coming of age story"; I knew the main character was Scout, but I thought Tom Robinson was the focal character. (According to my younger brother, who read the book and watched the movie last year, this mistaken impression spawned from the Gregory Peck adaptation.)

So instead of finding an A Time to Kill sort of legal thriller unfolding before me, I found myself watching a young girl grow into the harsh reality of the Depression era. The South suffered racism, poor education, socially acceptable child abuse, sexism, and all the related legal issues and rights breaches. Tom Robinson suffered, but so did Mayella Ewell, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Scout and her friends, and even Scout's misguided teachers.

In To Kill a Mockingbird  every character suffered in their own way. The African American characters suffered racism, segregation, hatred, and violence. Characters who outwardly opposed racism suffered prejudice. Children suffered prejudice and violence from adults. Misguided teachers actively discouraged their students' urge to learn. Women suffered violence and sexual abuse from men, up to and including their own fathers. Even the most reprehensible characters suffered--they lived in a world that encouraged and rewarded their behavior and lack of personal growth.

The human world still faces these issues today, but thankfully at a far lesser scale. In fact, that's what rings so true about To Kill a Mockingbird  It's a real problem, and it's being examined by a person who actually experienced it. This isn't a 2012 novel lamenting the racism of history; this is a 1960 novel reflecting the exact kind of life challenges that the author lived through. And that adds such weight to the story.

What it all comes down for me is that To Kill a Mockingbird was worth reading. Not because a teacher said so, but because To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful story about America's past, growing up, challenging injustice, and accepting defeat in exchange for small victories. And it has a wonderfully poignant emotional ending.

To Kill a Mockingbird still isn't the kind of book I would normally read, but it's the kind of book that makes me glad I did.

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