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For Multitudes, the Book of a Lifetime

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Just as life is a motive force, so can a book be a motivating force in the lives of readers.

Author Harper Lee’s long life has ended, but the book for which she is best known, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” was for untold numbers of people all over the world their “book of a lifetime,” the book they considered to have the most impact on their lives and minds. It won the Pulitzer Prize and sold more than 30 million copies.

cover of the book
Cover of the first edition of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” 1960

Evidence of this effect came through again and again when the Library of Congress, in 2012, presented an exhibition titled “Books That Shaped America,” inviting those who attended that exhibit and others who went to that year’s Library of Congress National Book Festival to cite the book that most shaped their lives. (In our NBF “Books That Shaped the World” informal survey in 2013, which drew more than 500 responses, “Mockingbird” was outflanked only by the Bible).

We also are proud to host an essay contest for young people, here at the Library, called “Letters About Literature,” in which children and teens write to an author, living or dead, who has made a major impression upon them. Daniel Le, who won honorable mention in this contest in 2008, wrote to Harper Lee:

Dear Ms. Lee,

I have only begun to appreciate the power of your work To Kill a Mockingbird. Even on my first reading, I was enthralled by this moral drama of good and evil set in the “deep” South during the Great Depression. I was most indignant when the verdict went against Tom Robinson, but I did not immediately relate it to any personal experience. At a family gathering, however, a chance discussion about your book unleashed a torrent of passionate personal stories from my usually reticent and reserved family. Clearly, your historical fiction about social injustice and discrimination struck a chord. My grandfather recounted how he silently endured racial epithets for years and how he had to pay blackmail to a white city inspector to keep his laundry open. My dad will never forget how his family was treated when they attempted to rent apartments in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1960s. Speaking perfect English, he had no problem getting appointments to see the apartments on the phone. When he went with my grandparents to see the apartments, however, he was told pointedly, “We don’t rent to your kind.” (The rest of Daniel Le’s letter can be read here.)

I remember the effect that book had on my own family in the early 1960s, when it came out in print and very quickly was made into a movie we now consider a classic. My parents read the book and saw the film, and shortly after took my brother, my sister and me—ages 13, 11 and 7, respectively—to a matinee to see it, all together. They wanted to teach us what “character” meant.

Many fans hoped for another Harper Lee novel in vain. Then, through third parties, another work she had written earlier in her life came to light, and was published: “Go Set A Watchman.” It viewed the fictional lawyer Atticus Finch through a new, less-glowing lens, causing real disappointment to many readers.

Well, I haven’t read it. But even if I do, it won’t take the joy out of “Mockingbird” for me. Many authors of acknowledged masterpieces wrote other stuff too, and we don’t hold it against them: “Tom Sawyer” is not “Huckleberry Finn.”  “Timon of Athens” doesn’t get performed, or even studied, as much as “Macbeth.”

Thanks, Harper Lee, for Atticus and Scout and Boo Radley. You said what you had to say, and for thousands upon thousands of people, its resonance still rings.


  1. Jennifer
    I have just been introduced to the blog and your articles. Great work on the Harper Lee article. As one born and raised in deep South Mississippi and growing up in the 50’s and 60’s,graduating from Auburn in 1962, and launching a military career from there, the injustices blacks suffered terribly even in the ’60’s did not begin to lessen until the black men from my hometown, Vicksburg, and others came home from military service in
    Vietnam- ironic without that war this would not have happened. The journey to social justice has been a slog. That is why Lee’s “To Kill…” continues to shock.
    I do have a favor to ask- can you provide me a link where I might review the more detailed results of the survey, not the 2012 one, but the later one that placed as one result the Book of Mormon in a top 5 place on the most influtential book list. For a book that did NOT make the 2012 list to land high up on the 2016 list is puzzling. Any help on this would be appreciated.
    BTW I know your background is Colorado- we will be there for Christmas and snow with family.
    Warm Regards ad Merry Christmas,
    Frank McLeskey
    Fairfax Station VA

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