Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, died today at 89.
Everyone reads To Kill a Mockingbird in high school or college, right? For years, I recalled it being on a summer AP English reading list. I no doubt rushed through it to get to Heller or Dostoyevsky.
But last year, as the controversy over Go Set a Watchman started bubbling up, I began to wonder: did I actually ever read Mockingbird? Like a lot of great books, it had permeated American culture so thoroughly that I could fake my way through a conversation about Atticus Finch without first-hand knowledge the book he appears in.
Sadly, discussing things you haven’t read is an important skill in Hollywood.
I bought and read Mockingbird this year over the Christmas holiday. Spoiler: it’s terrific. Through cultural osmosis, I already had some sense of Atticus, Scout and Boo Radley, and the trial at the center of the book.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how smart and funny Lee’s writing would be. She manages the difficult feat of telling the story from the perspective of a willful six-year-old tomboy while vividly painting in the details of Maycomb, Alabama. As the reader, you understand the complicated lives of the adults even while the young protagonist is annoyed and baffled by them.
Lee’s scene work is terrific — a nighttime walk back from school is harrowing — but her transitions are remarkable. She can thoroughly document a moment down to each scowl and scrape, then zip through months in a sentence. This ability to stretch and compress time is so much harder than Lee makes it look.
To Kill a Mockingbird is usually studied for its themes and cultural issues, but I’d urge you to read it — or re-read it — just for the writing.