There is no real way of measuring the books we love the most. It’s like measuring the love one has for family and friends: there will be different choices for every stage of your life, and different degrees of attachment. As every reader knows, reading is intensely personal, and the books you love change you and stay with you in ways that even a lover will not. But if there’s one book that comes up every time we talk about the books we love, that would be To Kill A Mockingbird, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The American classic is one of those rare books that is both for children and for adults, and I am an unrepentant Mockingbird fan, resistant to the revisionist views that see an underlying current of racism or moral superiority in Harper Lee’s story. Reading it as a child, I was beguiled by how well Harper Lee understood the way children think and feel; as an adult, as many of us are, I was drawn into her vivid analysis of racism, prejudice and moral courage.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow….When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.”
That’s Scout’s voice, the sure voice of a child recollected by an adult, that will guide us through the intricacies of the politics of Maycomb County, the morality and blindness of the law, growing up, and the competing forces of prejudice and justice. The moral compass of the book is Scout and Jem’s father, the lawyer Atticus Finch: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” The case at the centre of the book concerns the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man, Tom Robbins, and as Atticus takes up his defence, we see the reactions of Maycomb County from the point of view of Scout, who has a child’s instinctive sense of unfairness.
It’s not the content, however, that drives the continuing popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee based her account of the Tom Robbins case on a real event, and her reportage is in that sense an accurate snapshot of the way prejudice worked in the South. Nor is it the mystique that surrounds Lee herself; she never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird, and in her most recent “interview” with The Daily Mail, all she said was that she had to go and feed the ducks on the lake. Lee turned her back on a certain kind of writing life; the woman who once helped Truman Capote research his riveting, pathbreaking book, In Cold Blood, and was an amused observer of the New York literary world retreated into a normal, if very private, life back home.
None of this can explain the hold that this book has on so many readers across the world. It’s not the easy appeal of the Coelho-esque bestseller, with its ready-to-digest, unthreatening wisdom, or the purely cerebral joys of the Borgesian or Nabokovian bestseller at the other end of the scale. In its fiftieth year, Mockingbird has been attacked for reflecting a kind of hidden conservatism, for not being subversive enough; or been excoriated by critics who see Lee’s great novel as a superior work of pulp fiction rather than true literature, whatever that may be.
For readers like me, it is easier to understand Mockingbird’s appeal than to explain it. I go back to this book, along with a small handful of classics, not just to admire its craft and precision, but as a kind of touchstone: the way I respond to Lee’s story of childhood, injustice and inner strength with the passing years shifts and changes, reflecting shifts in my own personal values over the years.
The person who understood the pull of To Kill a Mockingbird best may be Charles J Shields, who spent years researching the book and the author for his unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird.
“I have come to believe,” he writes, “that Harper Lee was inspired by love to create her great novel—love for the world of the South, for her little town, for her father and her family, and for the values she found among the people she most admired.” And perhaps, unfashionable as this analysis is, it is the best explanation for why we love To Kill a Mockingbird as much as we did fifty years ago.