Today brought the news of Harper Lee's death. She died peacefully in her sleep, said her family, at the age of 89. I sighed deeply and took a few moments to think about her and the literary treasure that is her legacy. To Kill a Mockingbird is, to me, one of the most important books I ever read and taught.
So many of the Twentieth Century writers who became important and special to me over the years are now gone. And each time I heard of their deaths--Arthur Miller, JD Salinger, now Harper Lee--I felt a real sense of loss, and the same loss, one so final and so helpless, even though I did not know them personally, nor had I ever met them.
I think after teaching a book or play so many times (and reading it again each time), it becomes personal. At least it does to me. Because I have not only read the text of the work, I have researched the history of it, the life of the author him- or herself, and anything I can find regarding it. Maybe more importantly, as all Readers do, I have dissolved into the book or play itself. With To Kill a Mockingbird, I fell in love with Atticus as a father. My heart ached for Jem as his pre-adolescent idealism crumbled and broke apart. And my voice always, always faltered when I read aloud Boo Radley's simple request, "Will you take me home?", especially since we knew he was only a child, too, but he had no one to look after him or love him at all.
All the books I ever taught became personal to me. They came to life for me when I taught them, and I always found something new each time, often through the eyes of my students. But even as a young reader, I folded a lot of books into my heart, and they live there still.
That is the Thing With Books. Books are timeless and books are Forever. I still have my copies of The Crucible, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird, among others. And that is wonderful. The Thing I have a hard time with is that, somewhere deep down inside, I expect their authors to be the same way--always There, Timeless and Forever Alive.
I know it's Impossible. I know that isn't a very Grown-Up Way To Feel. I realize that, in a way, I have conflated the Book with its Author. And that is why I feel a sense of loss. It is as if I have lost a friend who I haven't seen in a long time, but one to whom I was very close at some point in my life and shared a great deal with. There is a brief shock, a moment of memories and some wistfulness, but life will go on just like before.
The death of Harper Lee makes me even more resolute in my efforts to bring books back into my life. It has been slow going, but I am making progress. Maybe I'll read To Kill a Mockingbird for the fifty-something-th time, this time without guiding ninety teenagers along with me. My Reading Journey reminds me of something Scout said about her own Reading Journey. Faced with the prospect of never reading with her father again because her teacher said first-grade Scout must start fresh learning to read along with the rest of the class, adult Scout mused, "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."