Please join us for a “Mockingbird” reading

If you’re on the North Shore this Sunday, I hope you’ll consider dropping by Cornerstone Books in Salem, where I will be among several people reading excerpts from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The event begins at 2 p.m.

I came very late to “Mockingbird,” published 50 years ago this year. On the recommendation of my wife and daughter, I rented the movie this past spring. It was, I realized, one of the best I’d ever seen. The racial drama is compelling. But what riveted me was Mary Badham‘s performance as Scout, as realistic a depiction of childhood as has come to the screen. She should have won the Oscar for Best Actress.

As for Lee’s original work, I finished it just a few days ago. I found it odd to read a good novel after having seen such a first-rate film depiction of it. And, frankly, the reason I call it good but not great is that there’s a certain one-dimensional quality to it that we expect in movies but not in books. This Slate essay by Stephen Metcalf is too harsh, but I agree that “Mockingbird” is essentially a children’s book.

But what a children’s book. Lee’s achievement is worth celebrating, and I’m excited to be part of it.

15 thoughts on “Please join us for a “Mockingbird” reading

  1. BP Myers

    I’m reminded of my own reaction to finally getting around to reading (and abhoring) “The Catcher in the Rye” later in life.

    When I told my friend about my reaction to his favorite book, he shrugged and said, “You read it too late. You can’t read it NOW. You have to read it THEN.”

    I don’t at all believe “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a children’s book, just as I don’t believe “The Catcher in the Rye” is a children’s book.

    I think perhaps you need to read and experience them at the right time, before responsibility and cynicism and snarkiness set in.

    In terms of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I’ll be forever grateful that I did.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @BP: “Mockingbird” is an excellent children’s book, and I’m glad I read it. Stephen King once wrote a very perceptive review of the Harry Potter books for the New York Times Book Review. (I’ve only read the first, but it’s enough.) King’s take was that the Potter books are great children’s literature that will be read 100 years from now — but that they would remain children’s literature because the characters are either purely good or purely evil. There’s no nuance.

      I think the same is true of “Mockingbird.” The good characters are nearly perfect. Has anyone like Atticus Finch ever walked among us? Jesus, maybe. Likewise, there isn’t a single redeeming quality to Bob Ewell, or even an explanation of how he became a pure manifestation of evil.

      So yes, though I think “Mockingbird” is a fine novel, I think it’s best understood as a morality tale for children.

  2. BP Myers

    @Dan:

    The book was written from the perspective of an older person remembering their own childhood. No surprise that it’s idealized.

    I like to think there are people like Atticus Finch. I know there are people like Bob Ewell.

    Morality tales know no age limit.

    In terms of Stephen King’s opinion of the Harry Potter books, gonna take his word for it. They’re yet another cultural tsunami that passed me by.

    Not sure he’s the most unbiased person to discuss them though, in that they are his competition and did knock him off a bestseller list or two.

    At any rate, it has become fashionable to knock “To Kill a Mockingbird” (there’s another snarky article about it in the WSJ today).

    Think I’ll just avoid it all until society decides upon the next good thing it wants to trash.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @BP: Stephen King is a first-rate literary critic and a second-rate (at best) novelist. Many terrific novelists have also worked as critics. The idea that that’s somehow a conflict of interest is ludicrous. In King’s case, he had nothing but good things to say about the Potter books.

  3. BP Myers

    @Dan:

    My admiration for Stephen King knows no bounds, but there is an inherent conflict of interest in one novelist judging another’s work. To think that there’s not is what’s ludicrous.

    Doesn’t mean it’s not brilliant criticism though, or even right.

    At any rate, we won’t be around in one-hundred years to see if his prediction comes true.

  4. Mike Benedict

    @BP wrote: “… but there is an inherent conflict of interest in one novelist judging another’s work.”

    Could that same thinking be applied to other forms of writing, say, for example, journalism? And if so, doesn’t it beg the question, why bother reading a media criticism blog authored by a journalist?

  5. Rose Justice

    @Dan I must disagree with you on two points.
    1) If To Kill a Mockingbird were a children’s book, then how could such an adult film be made from it and one that followed the story quite faithfully?

    2) I agree with both you & Mr. King that Harry Potter is children’s literature. I would add “great” because anything that can get that many children to read 800+ pages is great IMO. However, I disagree that the characters are either purely good or purely evil and I think that your view on this speaks to the fact that admittedly you have only read the first book. Being an adult without children who has read all seven AND showed up at B&N at some horrid hour on the day of release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows I would have to say that the easiest example to disprove this assertion would be Snape.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Rose: I found the movie to be fairly one-dimensional, but that’s what I would have expected from Hollywood in 1962. So it didn’t bother me at all. I would go so far as to say that Gregory Peck occasionally teetered on the brink of parody, but I was so enthralled by Mary Badham that I didn’t mind. As for the Harry Potter books growing in depth, all I can say is “Touché.” No reason to think Rowling didn’t improve as she went along.

  6. BP Myers

    @Mike Benedict asks: Could that same thinking be applied to other forms of writing, say, for example, journalism?

    Of course. Which is why you should read everything with a jaundiced eye.

    @Mike Benedict asks: And if so, doesn’t it beg the question, why bother reading a media criticism blog authored by a journalist?

    “Doesn’t mean it’s not brilliant criticism though, or even right.”

    At any rate, didn’t mean to sidetrack things. Glad Dan has discovered this wonderful book (and movie) and is doing what he can to share it with others.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @BP: You are coming dangerously close to saying that reporters for the New York Times have a conflict of interest in covering the war in Afghanistan because they are working for a paper based in one of the combatant countries. It always helps to know where people are coming from, but not everything is a conflict of interest.

  7. BP Myers

    @Dan Kennedy says: You are coming dangerously close to saying that reporters for the New York Times have a conflict of interest in covering the war in Afghanistan because they are working for a paper based in one of the combatant countries.

    Heh. Extrapolate, much? But I suspect that is indeed the view in much of the world beyond our borders.

    And I can think of at least one New York Times reporter who, if she’d been read with something more of a jaundiced eye, might not have convinced many of us that Iraq was a clear and present danger.

    I can think of another New York Times reporter who simply made things up.

    Again, sincerely did not mean to sidetrack things.

  8. Sean Griffin

    “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”
    — Flannery O’Connor

  9. BP Myers

    @Sean Griffin said: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.” – Flannery O’Connor

    My point exactly.

  10. As to whether a novelist can be a good critic, of course they can, but it depends on the writer. Having left King’s novels many years ago, I do follow his column of criticism in Entertainment Weekly, and he is very generous in his praise both of established authors and overlooked unknowns. He once anointed Clive Barker by paraphrasing Jon Landau’s comment about the blossoming Springsteen: “I have seen the future of horror writing, and his name is Clive Barker”, so that speaks to any worries about his honesty about his direct competition.

    The thing about the Potter books, is that they start at “children’s literature”, aimed at the age group of Harry on entrance to Hogwarts, 11 years old. Each book is a bit longer and a bit more complicated until you arrive at book 7 for 18 year olds (& beyond). I have only read the first Potter, and just now the last one, having seen all the movies to date to follow the intervening story.

    Anna Quindlen has a nice appreciation of the character of Scout in TKAM IN HUFFPO:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/09/to-kill-a-mockingbird-ann_n_639957.html

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