This past Sunday, I participated in the Eastwood Schuler Books read-a-thon of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The event was a celebration of the book’s 50th anniversary as well as a fundraiser for the Capital Area Literacy Coalition. On both counts, I was glad to participate.
Unlike most of the other participants, I have no great memory of reading To Kill A Mockingbird during my formative years. Surely it was an assigned part of my high school or college curriculum, but there’s a mental blank spot where one would think to find my “the-significance-of-my-first-encounter-with-To Kill A Mockingbird…” memory. This leads me to believe that my initial encounter with the novel was a speed-date facilitated by Cliffs Notes; and if that’s an appalling admission for a writer to make (and it is), I say in my defense only that though I love to read, I can’t stand being told what to read.
And so it was not until a full decade into my adulthood that I actually read To Kill A Mockingbird. I came to the book willingly – not as an assignment or as a literature chore, but as a choice. And I re-read it again just this past month. On both readings, I was fully absorbed by the writing, the plot, and the characters.
It is next to impossible to ever have the full freshness of a first read for a novel that is so well-known and so thoroughly and frequently discussed. So perhaps it’s impossible for me to really have an opinion on the book. Plus, I’ve never been one for book discussions or literary analysis. But this I can say for certain: Harper Lee wrote herself a damn fine novel.
After I recently re-read the novel, I focused in on Chapter 11, as it was the part I was assigned to read at the read-a-thon. As I practiced the words aloud, I paid particular attention to those I knew by definition but not by pronunciation. I pulled out my dog-eared dictionary and looked up the syllables and stresses for words such as interdict, philippic, apoplectic, gallantly, and calomel, to ensure that I had some chance of saying them correctly. After that, I spent time savoring some of the singular sounds of Chapter 11’s words and phrases. “Scuppernong,” for instance, is a delight to say aloud. Or try this phrase, from a description of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s place: “… a house with steep front steps and a dog-trot hall.” Such a beautiful, natural cadence there. Or try this out loud: “’Conscious,’ he smiled, ‘and cantankerous.’” Cantankerous is definitely a word that we all should get to say more. It makes a happy little clatter in your cheeks.
But also in Chapter 11, as elsewhere in the book given its timeframe and subject matter, resides another word. A word that I have never said aloud, never even thought aloud. Honestly, I wasn’t sure that on Sunday I’d actually be able to say it. In the days leading up to the read-a-thon, it caused me to think quite a lot about the flip-side of the power of words. I take such joy in words that I never fail to be surprised by the sheer wretched ugly of disparagements, slurs, and aspersions. Words of prejudice are a poisonous pox on the landscape of language. Just as prejudice itself, in all its forms, is a pox on humanity.
Twenty-five years ago, I probably read something to that effect in Cliffs Notes. But my English teacher had it right after all: to have any hope of understanding, you really have to read the book.