Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Is Scout Worth A Second, First Visit?

Next week in my media class, students will be reading and talking about the first mass medium: Books.

The news in the book world this week, of course, is about an intensely private woman who for most of her adult life maintained that she said all she wanted to say, and she wasn't going to publicly say any more.

Now, she will “speak” on the pages again. Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has a second book coming out.

Actually a first book, apparently. According to news stories, Lee had penned “Go Set a Watchman” first. It’s a story written and set in the 1950s, when a 29-year-old woman from New York returns home to Alabama to visit her aging father. His name is Atticus Finch. You know her as Scout.

Cover of recent paperback edition.
Or at least I hope you know her. You should read “To Kill a Mockingbird” when you’re young, maybe 10 or so, not so far removed from the fresh life view of its 6-year-old narrator.

I don’t know what a 29-year-old Scout will be like, and maybe Harper was right to think she had said it all in “Mockingbird.” The story goes that she showed her first novel, “Watchman,” to some editors way back when. They liked it, but even more they liked some flashback scenes which were set in the Depression era South. Those became “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Will I read a second Harper Lee book? Oh, sure. I loved the first one. It’s one of those books that is worth rereading—encounter it when you’re young, and read it again as an adult.

I would be interested in whatever else Ms. Lee had written. But there are some questions—she clearly had refused to submit this other book for publication for most of her life, and it only surfaced after the death of her sister, apparently a lifelong ally in Ms. Lee’s quest to be left alone. Coming out now when she is old, frail and without her sister’s protection raises some questions: Mostly, why now?

Then again, Ms. Lee has followed her own drummer for many years. Maybe she just decided it’s time. I hope so.

Anyway, while it’s controversial to some, with its themes of race, sex and rape, I put “To Kill a Mockingbird” among the you-really-should-read-it list of books for any American youth. And it makes me think of what other books I consider key in my own young journey to some level of literacy. What else made Young Joe want to read and to write?

  • “Half Magic” by Edward Eager. And the rest of his light, whimsical books, including “Magic by the Lake” and “The Well Wishers.” I think I would call “Half Magic” the better book now, but I would say “The Well Wishers” was by far the most enchanting Edward Eager book to 11-year-old Joe. I don’t know if there’s a tie there for a white Midwestern boy, but “The Well Wishers,” like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has a racial undertone.

  • “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. The main character saves someone’s life through creativity and writing, and then herself dies in a heart-wrenching chapter, that, honestly, makes me choke up a bit even today just typing this sentence. Well, at least Charlotte’s daughters hang around. If you read “Charlotte’s Web” and didn’t love it, I don’t want to talk to you.

  • “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. It was important to me, because around the age of 9 or so it was the very first “chapter book” that I struggled through on my own. Of the Narnia books, I actually eventually grew more fond of “The Horse and His Boy,” but LW and W still has a special place in my heart.

  • “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Not as full of boring elf hotels as “The Lord of the Rings,” the story of Bilbo’s quest to find a dragon without any clear notion of what he was going to do with the dragon when it was found was just too much fun. My father read it aloud to us as children, but I was still fairly green when I read it for myself.

  • “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein. I read it when I was young, and didn't pick up its rather dour libertarian political overtones, which I strenuously disagree with today. But it was still a good book to read as a youth just to open my eyes to lots of different ways to view the political world. And I didn't notice, at the time of my youthful reading of the book, that the narrator was black, so this is again a book with racial overtones, although I didn't find that out until I was well into adulthood. Like “Charlotte’s Web,” I think the fact that it grapples with death is part of its appeal, too. Bog, is a computer one of your creatures?

Granddaughter "reading." She will learn to turn the book over.
I don’t mean to suggest that these are the best or only books for youth to read. Certainly my own kids loved Harry Potter, which didn't make this list only because I had kids by the time those books were published. Lemony Snicket is a wickedly subversive children’s writer, and at least mildly supervise, in my opinion, is a good thing for youth books to be. They don’t corrupt the young so much as mentally knock them off guard just a bit, which is something a good book ought to do to anybody anyway.

Well, students, we’ll see what our text author says about books in general. For you personally, what are books that have meant something to you, particularly books that you were not forced to read but rather chose to read in your younger days? And, blog universe in general, same question, but also how do you feel about Harper Lee’s new book?

Me, I’ll probably be in line the first day it’s available.

I can’t help myself. Atticus was a nice guy, but frankly I didn't really fall that hard for him. A saint is difficult to love. Jean Louise, on the other hand—baby, Scout, where have you been?


  1. When I was younger, reading did not interest me all too much. However, one book I remember reading multiple times was "Number the Stars." This book was a fictional reflection of characters experiences at the beginning of the Holocaust. I also remember reading nearly all of the Lemony Snicket books because they were entertaining and a fast read.

    1. Did you ever read "The Book Thief?" I understand the recent movie was not all that good, but the book is entertaining--written for young readers, but certainly engaging for adults, too. Like "Number the Stars," it has a Holocaust theme.

    2. I remember reading Number the Stars in third grade and once I caught on to the plot of the story I was very taken back and shocked with the outcome!

  2. This is a great list of influential books! As a youngster, I remember reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe many times. I remember it as the first book that I began seeing second meaning to what the story was saying.

    1. I hope you enjoyed the discussion in class today--and I think it's a key to becoming a reader to start to see the "double meanings" that are in books. Honestly, I think they exist even when an author does not intend them. "The Lord of the Rings," for example, seems partly a fictional version of World War II, from England's point of view (faded power of old glory faces more powerful upstart nation it had defeated before). Tolkien may not have intended that--but books can spark reactions and ideas beyond their intent. CS Lewis is lucky--a writer who can create children's classics will live on for generations. It remains to be seen if anybody 50 years from now reads "The Hunger Games," but surely some will read "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe."

  3. The list of novels above is a very solid list of books which has made an influential impact in my childhood. As a child my mother always made sure to emphasize the importance of reading and being literate. She didn't do this to a point of it being forced down my throat but in a way for me to understand and it be fun for me to read. She would always tell me "reading is fun and you can fall into a book". That is definitely a true statement and even today my mum reads all the time for enjoyment. I loved the Series of Unfortunate Events books and I can remember as a youngster rereading the series over and over. Another series I fell in love with was the Spider-wick Chronicles where I would go through a book in one evening and my mum would have to come into my room and shut off my light because I would stay up reading.