A Library Book That Remains Timeless and Timely
By Doreen Munsie
I have a confession to make. I have in my possession a book that was never returned to the library. The Flushing High School library. It’s a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, copyright 1960, with a handwritten notation by the librarian stating that this Board of Ed copy is dated September 13, 1966. This is doubly embarrassing as I now work in a library.
I blame this gross negligence on my sister who was the one who brought the book into the house when she was in high school. As a middle schooler, I was in the habit of reading many of her assigned books and thank her for exposing me to challenging, though maybe not always age-appropriate, reading material.
When my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2005, I found the book buried in her closet of stored clothes and papers. I don’t know why that was the only book in the piles, but I was touched that it was saved along with every report card my siblings and I had received from elementary school on. This was particularly significant since my mom was an immigrant from China who never learned to read and write English beyond perhaps a second-grade level.
An avid reader, but devoted minimalist, I had decided many years ago to stop keeping books. I borrow, donate, or pass on every book I read. But this book stayed with me and through the years has survived three moves, a major downsizing, and many Marie Kondo-style purges.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was, and still is, my favorite book. I am not alone. In October, Public Television’s Great American Read series culminated in it being voted by viewers as America’s favorite book and crowned it “America’s Best-Loved Novel”.
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel is a classic of American literature. Dealing with race in America, it introduced us to Atticus, the “most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.” Inspired by Lee’s childhood, her novel has come to define youthful innocence and its loss. In a Library of Congress survey on books that have affected people’s lives, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was second only to the Bible.
It was very successfully translated to the big screen in 1962.The movie version starring Gregory Peck won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor and was short-listed for several other prestigious film awards. As an aside, several decades ago, I sat a few rows behind the legendary actor at a Broadway show – I don’t even remember what the performance was, only that I saw him in the audience. (I mean, it was Gregory Peck.)
On November 1, “To Kill a Mockingbird” opened on Broadway to standing-room-only audiences. The first week alone, it grossed a record-breaking $1.3 million. I took my husband to see it in previews for his birthday. I admit it was really a present for me. Thankfully he loved it as much as I did.
In this very first stage version, screenwriter, director, producer, and playwright Aaron Sorkin has chosen to focus on Atticus as the central character as opposed to 6-year-old Scout, and, interestingly, has made Scout, Jem, and Dill adult versions of the characters that narrate the story in a Greek choral style. It takes a brief moment to adjust to this as well as the continuous scene changes maneuvered in real time by the actual cast members as they are speaking.
Sorkin’s adaptation is powerful. It is a deeply moving work that is brought to life on the stage and delivers poignancy that only live theatre can. This interpretation effectively recalls the heart-wrenching emotions of the story’s themes of injustice, heroism, and racial inequality that are so sadly as relevant today as they were in the time of my first reading, as well as Lee’s original writing, and actual childhood. One only has to look at recent headlines to know that we haven’t come as far as we would have hoped since the setting of the book in Maycomb, Alabama, in 1934.
I have long since gotten over the guilt of having this book, rationalizing that it’s too late to return it and it’s clearly not in suitable condition for recirculation. The day after the play I took the book out of the plastic storage bin that houses everything from diplomas, to a white wedding photo album. But unlike the other memorabilia in that box, this book, yellowed pages and all, is a literary masterwork. Sorkin described the original source material as both timely and timeless. It is indeed worth a reread.
Odds are that you probably don’t have a copy stored away, but you can easily get a copy from the library. Stop in or reserve a copy online, download it to read electronically, or listen to it in audio format. We have so many more options now, but please, just remember to return it.