I started my 100 Greatest Books Challenge more or less when I started this blog, in July 2010, and To Kill a Mockingbird is fifth on the list. I can't think why I didn't get to it sooner, because so many people have read it, and I don't believe I've come across a negative review of it yet. And rightly so, because I loved it.
This was my first book of 2013, and what a way to start a year! How absolutely perfect to start with a book I loved! As with The Grapes of Wrath, I read it as an outsider who knows very little about American history and who is very inexperienced with 20th Century American Literature. What I do know is fact, and one of the things I love about reading is perspective. It's all very well knowing what happened and when, and indeed it is of course very useful. But literature offers a glimpse into humanity, and gives these facts a context, the human context. The thoughts, emotions, and effects on people who may not have a place in our history, but who are nonetheless real to us. You will not find the birth certificate of Scout Finch or read about Atticus's legal career in an old newspaper, but this does not make it any the less real. And this is how I felt when I read it. It was real.
It is set in the 1930s, in the 'Deep South', and tells the story through the eyes of Scout Finch of the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, and in doing so explores the themes of race and justice, or more specifically injustice, social class, and gender. For me, both Scout and her father, the defender of Tom Robinson, are two of the most endearing characters in literature, and I dare say will be the most memorable.
I've read that one of the criticisms of To Kill a Mockingbird is the mature voice of Scout, who tells the story with the maturity and insight of someone much older. But, this book is written in the past tense, and although there is a distinct childlike quality to some of the observations and nuances of speech, enough to conclude that this is not the narrator of an adult looking back, there is enough to suggest that Scout is a little older than she is during the events. And she is certainly my favourite child in literature! The style of To Kill a Mockingbird is nothing short of perfect, it simply rolls. There seems to be no flitting about (or if there was, I didn't notice), no jumps: it flows. Because of this, it's impossible to put down (in a good way!). It has that wonderful quality of feeling more like a conversation than a book. The narrator is completely present, and so it felt like Scout was sitting next to me telling me her story. Because of this it felt warm, and more real than ever. Infinitely human.
And Atticus - another new favourite character. He is strong, with great integrity, quiet passion, and such kindness. He is a good man, completely good, but realistically so: not irritatingly saintly, and no undertones of hypocrisy. He is someone, therefore, to be admired and loved, and someone deserving of much respect. He is inspirational.
I was interested to read about this book's reception. It is Harper Lee's only book, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, has never been out of print, translated into over forty languages, has sold over thirty million copies, and in a book poll in 2009, beat the Bible in books cited as most inspirational. How and why did it take me this long to read it?
It's funny, how it takes such a long time sometimes to get to a book. It's not that I thought I wouldn't like it, but there was always something else clamouring for my attention. I wish that hadn't been so, I should never have waited this long for such an important book. There's no point in me ending this post by begging you to read it, because the fact is you probably have. But if you haven't then do. Of all the books we feel we 'ought' to read, this should be at the very top. A beautiful and true book, and I see why so many people say it is a "must-read", and it is so very easy to read, too. It is a perfect book.