Wednesday, July 15, 2015

To Read or Not to Read

by Holly West

I've never read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (TKAM). It wasn't assigned reading at my high school and I never got around to reading it later in life. As I discussed in this recent post, there are lots of classic books that fall into that category for me. I have this vague feeling I should probably make reading at least some of them a priority, but then I turn back to the most recent download on my kindle and read that instead.

(For those of you who are interested, that book was Anonymous-9's HARD BITE. I finished it last night and enjoyed the hell out of it).

And now that I think about it, I've never even seen the film version of TKAM. As such, I have no pre-conceived ideas about the book or, specifically, Atticus Finch. What I know of it comes only from its iconic status in American literature and culture.

So with this said, I didn't have much of an opinion or reaction when HarperCollins announced it would be publishing GO SET A WATCHMAN (GSAW) in July 2015. Many people I know did have opinions, however, so the issue of whether or not it should be published was widely discussed in my social media feeds. And now that the initial reviews of GSAW have been released indicating that the much beloved Atticus Finch might not have been the hero some have come to love in his earlier incarnation, there's been another flood of opinions on the subject.

Some have said they refuse to read the new book based on speculation that Harper Lee didn't want it published. Others have said they'll happily read it for a host of reasons, but mainly out of love for TKAM.

Both books have now risen to the top of my to-be-read pile. I'm not so much interested in the controversy surrounding GSAW as I am in examining how Harper Lee first conceived Atticus versus what he became in TKAM. I think we can learn something as writers from seeing how Lee took one element of an existing manuscript (the adult Scout's childhood reminiscences) and used it to create an entirely different book. The writer in me is fascinated by that. But I also think we can learn something about ourselves as a society, too.

Keeping in mind that I haven't read either book yet, one (TKAM) seems to portray an idealized vision of race in America--how we might like to view ourselves--while the other (GSAW) presents a more realistic portrayal of race relations in the 1950s that unfortunately continues into the present. I understand that this might be a simplistic view of both books, especially considering its based completely on hearsay. We'll see how my perceptions change once I read them.

My hope is that Lee did in fact want GO SET A WATCHMAN published. I haven't read every article on the subject, but as far as I can tell, there's no concrete evidence it was done without her consent. Not that there aren't legitimate questions surrounding its publishing--though I'm in no position to say. I suppose if Lee came out and said unequivocally that she did not want it published, I wouldn't read it, but I don't think we'll ever know for sure.

I'm writing this now, before I read them, because I have no history with nor emotional investment in either book. I'm simply an interested bystander who now wants to learn more.


Kristopher said...

This is exactly why the publication of GSAW is such a big deal. The problem is that the marketing of the book was all over the place and many people are thinking they are getting something they are not (ie a sequel, because the characters are older - when in fact, it is simply an early draft).

Scholars will spend years analyzing how GSAW became TKAM. All those details will never be known. But it is also a snapshot of an age (like the golden age of movies) when businesses invested in a talent and cultivated them to greatness.

I haven't yet read GSAW - 1. I'm in no rush, 2. I'm waiting for my copy to ship from the Harper Lee's hometown bookstore and 3. Since the crime is no longer forefront, it's not appropriate for my blog. But anyone who has done any type of writing knows that characters change while writing. In a later draft, something doesn't work and you change it. That seems to be the case here. Now, we'll likely never know who initiated those changes, who was happy about them and who might not have been, or even at what point did those change occur. But that doesn't invalidate a study of the evolution of a work.

As for TKAM, Holly. Oh to be in your position. To be able to read that book again with little prior knowledge. You are in for a treat!

EA said...

Wonderful essay, Holly and thank you for the shout out. We miss you in Los Angeles.--Anonymous-9

Steve Weddle said...

Great points.

As for me, I never read MOCKINGBIRD and I probably won't read this one. I also never read LORD OF THE FLIES or BRAVE NEW WORLD or any of those 'must reads.' I should probably go back to high school.

Holly West said...

And you're much more well-read than I am, Steve. I should probably go back to kindergarten.