Rereading, and an Uncomfortable Bookstore Experience

To Kill a Mockingbird Cover It was almost closing time and I was browsing the “Favorite Bestsellers” rack at Barnes & Noble, wondering whose favorites could have possibly made it onto that shelf, when an older teenaged guy walked up. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

I glanced up from the back cover of The Girl on the Train and squinted at him.

A thick lock of black hair fell in front of his left eye and a thick swirl of improbable, artfully-cut sideburn approached his right. I almost asked him how he could stand to blink with that much fur approaching his line of sight, because that’s about how socially appropriate I’ve felt lately.

“Have you ever, uhm, like, picked up a book, and just couldn’t put it down?”

“Yes, that’s happened to me a time or two.”

He was so earnest and looked truly desperate for something, anything, to keep his mind occupied before Barnes & Noble kicked him out.

“Do you remember any of the titles?”

And then my mind went blank. I had nothing for him. There’s the junk reading I’ve been doing recently, but I couldn’t bring myself to recommend Cassandra Clare to that kid. And my (possibly unreasonable) judgment was that he wouldn’t appreciate any Dickens or To Kill a Mockingbird recommendations. And… what else was there?

Of all the books I’ve devoured and loved, I couldn’t figure out what to tell the kid. I asked him which genres he liked, to which he responded (most unhelpfully) that he liked them all fairly equally. Blah. Either the kid was truly desperate for a page-turner, or he was doing one of those freshman-psych social experiments in which you have to survey random people, and I was the failed experiment. He wasn’t quite awkward enough for that, though.

I need to make a list, I thought frantically. How can I not have an answer to this question? It SHOULDN’T BE THAT HARD. 

The thought made me think I need to revisit some of my favorites and reevaluate them. I did recently break my general practice of NOT rereading books to reread To Kill a Mockingbird. While reading it, it struck me that it’s a different book than I thought it was the first time around.

Many of the times I’ve tried to revisit a childhood book, I’ve been disappointed. Narnia doesn’t have quite the same magic on a second read-through as an adult when you already know what happens. It still has magic, but the magic has changed as much as I have. And it takes a special kind of mood to want to deal with that.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a different book at my ripe old 24 years (hah) than it was at 18. Scout is wiser now, less like an annoying kid. Atticus is nobler. I wanted to cry for Tom Robinson, and I wanted to cry even more for his wife and kids. I wanted to walk through the streets of Maycomb, which suddenly seemed like it must still exist somewhere in Alabama as the book describes, complete with its flying-buttressed mini-jail.

I wanted to rail at Atticus’s ridiculous tolerance of injustice against himself and his proclivity to walk in the shoes all the prejudiced, inexcusably self-serving people of the county–as much I wanted to rail at the challenging fact that he’s terribly, hopelessly right.

In a conversation with his daughter, Scout:

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”

My 18-year-old self would have had something virulent to say about the names certain Maycomb citizens called Atticus, as well as his doormat-esque attitude. My 24-year-old self is confronted with the fact that Atticus is terribly, unarguably, biblically right. And realizes that ten years from now, To Kill a Mockingbird will be a different book yet.

So, rereading. Not as much for artistry (though there is that) as for wisdom.

I don’t think I’d gain much by rereading anything Cassandra Clare wrote, which is probably one of the reasons (along with acute literary shame) that I hesitated to recommend The Mortal Instruments to my furry bookstore friend. But I could stand to reread Bleak HouseAnd Vanity Fair, which I’m sure would mean something different now than it did when I was 14 and enamored with Thackeray’s turn of phrase.

So I guess I need to make a list of page-turners worth rereading, and then actually reread them. Later, after I finish Go Set a Watchman

6 comments

  1. I’ve been meaning to re-read some classics and this may have inspired me to get movng on that. Also, last weekend, we were at my in-laws house and my husband found an old copy of To Kill A Mockingbird from high school, and he found quite the gem within the pages. Lol, he had drawn a flip book with his animation of the “How to Kill a Mockingbird” in the bottom right corner of the pages. If you give me your email, I’ll send it to you. It gave us quite the chuckle. :)

      1. I’d like to see that myself!

        I will definitely be reading the sequel but my reading will be hopelessly altered by the question of why it is being published in 2015. What would people have thought about it in 1960? 1970? and so on. Were the key players afraid to publish an honest portrayal of a white southern male who tried to demonstrate brotherly love toward Blacks in particular, yet at the same time regarded them as innately inferior to white men? I can easily imagine Atticus becoming more intolerant with time and social pressure. This attitude can be hard for non-Southerners to understand, yet everyone bows to social pressure from local customs, often without realizing it. My parents lived in northern Mississippi for awhile and Dad was pressured to join the KKK. They refused and eventually found themselves having to job-hunt and move because Dad did not want to join.

      2. True! Having read the sequel now, though, I tend to think that if it had been published right after it was written, it wouldn’t have been incredibly popular and we’d probably have no clue it exists.

        I’m from the South as well, and I’ve always felt that the race issues the South faces are a little more complex than many modern authors make it out to be. The popular idea is that an honorable man couldn’t possibly ever have entertained segregationalist views. The complicated idea is that many honorable men had to deal with it, and that it didn’t seem so clear-cut at the time. I appreciated that Harper Lee acknowledged the complexity of the situation in the sequel.

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