In October, as The New York Times marked the Book Review’s 125th anniversary, they invited readers to nominate the best book published during that time.
The winner is To Kill a Mockingbird. Book critic Molly Young wrote in The Times:
When you revisit in adulthood a book that you last read in childhood, you will likely experience two broad categories of observation: “Oh yeah, I remember this part,” and “Whoa, I never noticed that part.” That’s what I expected when I picked up “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was voted the best book of the past 125 years by readers in a recent New York Times poll. Two decades had passed since I’d absorbed Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. And yes, there was a huge amount I’d missed on my first time through, ranging from major themes (the prevalence of child abuse) to minor details (unfamiliar words, like “flivver”).
Inexcusable lapses in reading comprehension also surfaced, such as the fact that I hadn’t realized Mrs. Dubose — the cranky neighborhood villain — was a morphine addict. (“Mrs. Dubose is a morphine addict,” Atticus states in the book. In my defense … well, I have no defense.) As an adult, I can perceive why the novel might hold enduring appeal for many and enduring repulsion to perhaps just as many. I cannot fathom the complexities of teaching it to elementary school students in 2021, especially after reading online accounts from teachers on both the “pro” and “against” sides.
These apprehensions were present as I worked through the pages a second time, but they were overridden by the instant resurrection of exactly what I’d liked about the book the first time, which is Lee’s depiction of life in a small town. You wouldn’t think the Great Depression-era fictional Southern town of Maycomb, Ala., would have much in common with the nonfictional Northern California small town where I grew up and read “Mockingbird” in the 1990s — and yet!
Take the grim joke about a pair of Atticus’s clients, the Haverfords, who ignored their lawyer’s advice to take a plea deal and wound up hanging. No explanation is needed for their recklessness other than, as Scout puts it, that they were “Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass.” That’s on Page 5, and it’s precisely where I remember my attention perking up as a teenager. Only in a place of minimal citizenry can surnames carry such determinative weight. In my town, which had a population of approximately 1,000, the nominative shorthand took a more neutrally descriptive form: There was Barefoot Dave, who preferred to go shoeless on his rambles, and Treehouse Todd, who lived in a treehouse, and Tepee Dan — you can guess where he lived.
Much else in “Mockingbird” was recognizable from small-town living: the temptation to invent boogeymen; the excessive reliance on euphemism; the kneejerk ostracizing of those perceived as outsiders, with vandalism a common mode of reinforcement. There was the importance placed on mundane local landmarks: a certain tree, a specific fence, the house on the corner. There was the fiercely held conviction that one must mind one’s own business coupled with the exasperating practice of everyone minding everyone else’s business 100 percent of the time. (When I first moved to New York and lived in an apartment, I wondered if this last paradox would replicate itself within the diorama of my building. It did not. My urban neighbors took great pains to avoid even a molecule of anyone else’s business.)
Lee writes about the unremitting surveillance of Maycomb — of the reality that no act ultimately goes unobserved. At the age I originally read “Mockingbird,” I stole a candy bar from my town’s sole market, bragged about it to one individual and within hours was escorted by my mother back to the store and forced to apologize to the owner (and pay for the candy). There was no point in asking my mother how she knew. All knowledge was public knowledge.
I hadn’t known until reading Lee’s novel that what seemed like punishments and glories unique to my home turf were characteristic ones: the freedom to run amok, the inevitability of getting caught, the fiber-optic speed of rumor mongering, the magnification of every feud into a catastrophe.
So what struck me, rereading it, was not the totality of the book but one of its humbler accomplishments, which is how keenly Lee recreates the comforts, miseries and banalities of people gathered intimately in one little space.
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