Saturday, November 26, 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts.”
-- from To Kill a Mockingbird

I was in New Orleans in August, and, with a nasty sunburn (my own fault), ended up spending one full day hiding from the hot sun in the air conditioning of my hotel room. At least it was one of those really old historic hotels, so I didn't feel like I was completely wasting my trip! That gave me the opportunity to finally read Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird mostly in that day; for the record, I started it in the airport on the way down.

Many are the people who have been shocked over the years to learn that I, the incessant reader, had never read this classic and staple of high-school English courses. Usually I've said that I'd get around to it, although when I've been honest, I've said something like "I'm not big on American literature." Or most modern literature. That should probably be obvious by now. There are some American writers whose work I do really like: Herman Melville. Robert E. Howard. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Chester Hines, Ursula LeGuin. There's Charles Brockden Brown, father of the American Gothic. And current writers like Nick Mamatas, and A. Lee Martinez, and other people who aren't leaping to mind. But in general, whatever the time period, if the choice is between an American writer and a non-American writer, I tend to go for the latter. And if it's between something from the 20th century or later, and something before, I'll go for the latter.

My kneejerk stereotype about mainstream American literature is that it's too on-the-nose. Too obsessed with realism, too much thinking it's full of meaning because it deigns to include some symbolism. It says what it is, and after it's over, you say, " 'Kay. Got it." This tendency can be found in other writers, too: I feel the same way about D. H. Lawrence, for example. But I find it a lot in Americans. These can be okay reads, but there's so much out there that's richer and fuller.

So the truth is, had I not brought Lee's masterpiece as an airport book, and stuck to my room that day until it got cooler, I probably still wouldn't have read it. Not that there was anything wrong, as such, with the opening chapters. But as with my reading of Ready Player One, when it was over, I realized there wasn't a single line that I wanted to underline. In the end, that's probably my most damning summary of anything I read. I mean, I enjoyed the language in Crescent Carnival, a total potboiler, a lot more, and underlined a bunch of stuff! Most damning of all, I left it on the free book pile on the steps of a used book store, so I wouldn't have to carry the weight on the trip back. Ouch.

Maybe it's just that I like the adjectives.

In summary, To Kill a Mockingbird was fine. It was certainly better than watching Law and Order marathons in a hotel room all day. I liked the idea that such an esteemed and much-read classic has such an unconventional female narrator/protagonist, who chafes so openly at the limitations put on girls. It also, of course, contains an important message: racism is wrong. How depressing is it that this is still relevant?

And now when it comes up, I don't have to field questions about why the hell I never read one of the most famous American novels of all time. Just don't ask me about Go Set a Watchman!

1 comment:

  1. I don't think I'm going to read Go Tell a Watchman either.