Friday, February 19, 2016

In Which I Pause The Alphabet To Talk About Harper Lee And Books And Reading

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."



  1. I have loved and re-read "To Kill A Mockingbird" more than any other novel. Yet strangely enough, I did not feel particularly moved by Harper Lee's death. Perhaps because she had not written anything since so I never expected another book. (Obviously Watchman was published later but had been written long before Mockingbird.) I have so loved and admired that book one would think I would be affected by the death of the author.

    The writers I grieve most are those who were still writing. I was especially affected by the death of John Updike, who is one of my favorite writers. Perhaps because I love his writing but also because I was secretly hoping that somehow he would resurrect Rabbit Angstrom in 2011. He gave us a Rabbit book once every decade so I hoped there might be one more despite Rabbit's death in "Rabbit at Rest."

    Updike wrote about death in his poem "Perfection Wasted."

    "And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market —"
    "Who will do it again? That’s it: no one; imitators and descendants aren’t the same."

    And that's the tragedy when we lose a favorite author, isn't it? No one will ever do it exactly like that. It's comforting to know that their words will remain and we can re-visit them as often as we wish. So in a way, they are "always There, Timeless, and Forever Alive."

    1. NCmountainwoman--I was always captivated by Updike's poetry and by his physical appearance. He had such a careless handsomeness. He had the look of someone who simply sat in a leather armchair with a legal pad and a good pen and started firmly scrawling.

      And yes, I am largely comforted by the authors' presence in their works. And in the warmth of the character of their words. I guess it just doesn't seem fair to me that someone with their gift has to die. It's all very silly and naive and makes no sense at all. Death has always made me a child.

  2. This is a lovely tribute to Harper Lee's ability to get into someone's mind-- and make a difference in a positive way. As much as I like to read novels, I've never felt close to the authors. Which, now that I think of it, is weird. I worry about what became of memoirists after I finish their books, but I don't think again about fiction authors. Whatever. I'm sorry Harper Lee is gone, but glad that there are articulate people, such as yourself, to keep her memory alive and put it in perspective.

    1. Ally Bean--Thank you. What kind words about me and my writing! Certainly each Reader is different, and English/Literature Teachers are each different beyond that as readers. I learned to read when I was very young (4) and I used books as an escape from what was sometimes an unsatisfactory (but not horrible) life. All of that combined to make me sort of an...Intense Reader, perhaps.

      I do read nonfiction for my own pleasure reading, oddly enough. And rarely give them a second thought other than to do a little more research online if the subject continues to interest me. Hmmm.

  3. I read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' for the first time a few years ago. I'm not sure how I got through high school and college without reading it. I was blown away, really enjoyed it. I'm sorry she's gone, even if she wasn't writing anymore, at least just knowing she was out there in the world was a comfort of sorts.

    1. J@jj--Your last sentence summed up my entire blogpost (and emotions) perfectly and better than my long-winded attempt.

      Thank you.

      I'm sure that, right now, there are hundreds and hundreds of schools in which TKAM is not being taught/read. Lots of people would be perfectly okay with that and say it is time to Move On to other literature; certainly there is a great deal Out There. As a matter of fact, one of my essay questions on the final test over TKAM was to state whether or not the book should still be taught and defend the argument. I would say that it broke about 60-40 in favor of it being taught.

      I think it was a fair representation of student opinion, taking into consideration the kids who:
      1. love to argue the opposite; 2. will tell me what they think I want to hear; 3. will write whichever essay they have the strongest arguments for, regardless of how they feel personally; 4. hate to read and will slash any book; 5. love to read any book; 6. loved/hated the book; 7. chose that particular question because it seemed an easy one to write.

      (Sometimes, I have to say, in teaching a book SO HARD, I convinced myself!)

  4. I have got to read this book again. Because I'm pretty sure it's been 35 years at least since I read it. How can that be possible? Heading to the library right now. Scratch that - I just got the "enhanced" Kindle edition with Sissy Spacek narrating & video clips. I've never gotten video clips in a book before - should be interesting!

    I have certain authors that I feel like are "mine" & I will be very sad when they're no longer writing. But Ms. Lee was in a whole other class of author than most of mine. It feels like as long as she was alive we could hope to get another message from her, no matter how unlikely. Sigh.

    1. Bug--I remember learning that S. Spacek would be narrating TKAM and thinking how it would probably be a good idea. I am not big on other people reading to me, even now, when I am having problems with reading. I can't imagine video clips helping my concentration, hee hee. I'll stick with a generic book for my experience, but let me know how your TechieWhiz version goes. It all sounds very Exciting.

      It's true that Readers feel an ownership of certain authors. I can only imagine the love that JK Rowling must feel!

  5. It was a marvelous book. I, too, loved to teach it. I am waiting for the grandkid to be old enough to abandon her fantasy novels so that I can give it to her.

  6. It was a marvelous book. I, too, loved to teach it. I am waiting for the grandkid to be old enough to abandon her fantasy novels so that I can give it to her.

    1. Mary G--That sweet spot may never truly appear, so you might want to simply make a gift of the book when you think she is old enough and mature enough. Some people never abandon the fantasy genre, you know. It becomes a lifelong favourite, and there is plenty out there for adult readers, too, moving into the more elevated dystopian stuff. Your Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, can keep her busy for ages.


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