For Multitudes, the Book of a Lifetime

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.

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