Thursday, July 17, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I was out of high school before Harper Lee's book made it to the high school reading lists. What little social relevance they thought we might need was satisfied with Charles Dickens and the social inequities of 100 years previous.

Why, you might ask, should anyone read a book about race relations in the south during the depression? Why, you might also ask, should anyone read a book about race written before the civil right advances of the 1960s?

Because, if for nothing else, then to be reminded that great literature is timeless, and as topical as To Kill a Mockingbird might be, its characters go beyond the issues of the day. There is a short segment on Adolf Hitler that seems dated and preachy, but I imagine it was already dated and preachy when originally published.

I really enjoyed this book, not the least because I am strongly biased towards any book where the protagonist is a young girl who learned to read and write before kindergarten, no matter how unrealistic that might may be. If you ask, how many such book are there? I can one add one more to the list. Mathilda by Raold Dahl. I'd love to here of any others.

But beyond precocious girls, during a year when race is bound to be in the news, To Kill a Mockingbird still has much to say about race and class. Here is a an exchange between Atticus Finch, a sympathetic lawyer, and Tom Robinson, a black accuse of rape.
"Why did you run?"
"I was scared, [sir]."
"Why were you scared."
"Mr. Finch, if you were [black] like me, you'd be scared, too."

Here we see how difficult it is to walk in someone else's shoes. This election season we're going to hear a lot about this difficulty. Reading, even rereading, this book can remind everyone what we are up against, and why it is important.

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