On not reading a certain book…

July 24, 2015

97800995494829781785150289It has occurred to me that some of my former students may be a little surprised that I do not seem to have rushed to read and write about Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book.

I read the first chapter while away on my travels, because it was published in The Guardian; I was intrigued, and though that at some time I would probably read the book. Since then I have read a number of articles about, and reviews of, the book, with people reflecting on Atticus Finch the crusty old racist, and the disappearance of Jem…

I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird more times than any other book, through having taught it so many times as an English teacher, and if I taught you it, you will recall that we read every word of the novel aloud in class: I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Most students came to like, if not to love the book, and I have a soft spot for it; it is a very good book. It’s very carefully structured and well-written; it makes readers think, quite deeply, about a whole range of different and, I think, important things, and that is the hallmark of a good book for me.

So, I’m more than a little wary of having my impressions of the characters disturbed or altered. Yes, I hear you saying, as I said to you often enough, it’s a novel, they are characters, they don’t really exist! Harper Lee can do what she likes with them… I’m aware that there’s been no little controversy about the elderly author’s control of her writings, and uncertainty about the provenance of this new volume. The picture I have in my mind at present is that Go Set A Watchman can be seen as the precursor or To Kill A Mockingbird, the novel that she wrote first, that didn’t quite come up to the mark in the eyes of her editor, who sent her away with some feedback and ideas, that Lee went away and worked on until she gave birth to To Kill A Mockingbird, the book we all know and love.

Atticus as a racist, and apologist for segregation, seems to be the big shock. Perhaps this says more about Americans, or Southerners, than about anyone or anything else. Because if TKAM is a retro-fit of GSAW, then Lee went away and had her Scout in her twenties retell her childhood through the eyes of an innocent – an absolute masterstroke – and she refocused an ageing ex-liberal lawyer into a younger man who was forced to walk his talk and who challenged a town to confront – briefly – its racism. But even here, I think Lee is clear that no magic occurs in Maycomb: the novel is about Scout’s growing up, about her realisation that the world is not a nice place and that your father cannot sustain the idyll of childhood for you…

I shan’t say any more until I’ve read it, which I do intend to do.

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One Response to “On not reading a certain book…”


  1. So glad to hear you will read it and closely no doubt, the best review I’ve read was by a young woman who teaches Mocking Bird to high school students, she had reservations beforehand but ultimately was as drawn into GSAW as TKAM. I look forward to your thoughts on it.

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