Tag Archives: 1960s

Remember it’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird

The book’s original cover (source: npr.org)

I’ve had a long relationship with To Kill A Mockingbird. I first came across it when I was maybe 10, when I watched the film adaptation. My parents introduced me to a lot of incredible movies when I was that sort of age – another notable screening being Rear Window (!) – but I don’t think I really understood anything about them. Consequently, I also don’t really have any recollection about my first brush with Harper Lee’s novel, other than I think I kind of appreciated it as far as my brain at that stage had the capability to allow, and that I thought Scout was cool, even though she had a funny name.

Then, when I was 12 and halfway through Year 8, I had to read the novel for English class – or rather, I chose it from a list of novels that we were supposed to analyse, podcast-style, as our token group assignment for the semester. I’d decided, upon my impending teenagehood, that it was time that I become better read, in order to signify just how incredibly Grown Up I was to the outside world, Mockingbird being the only classic option on the reading list for the assignment – and, I thought, the movie was pretty good, so read it I did. And… I hated it, with a vehement, irrational passion. I thought it was slow, that it contained too much information that I – in all my wisdom – deemed irrelevant to the narrative, that the characterisation was implausible, that it didn’t really seem to have a proper climax. Why do people like this, I thought – how can they read this and not see how incredibly flawed and ridiculous it is? I’ve never read a more overrated book in my life! I don’t think I even managed to finish it. But then, I found myself a few months ago plucking my parents’ copy out of their bookshelf and deciding to reappraise it. And this time… I loved it, with the same passion which highlighted my hatred a few years prior.

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck in the novel’s film adaptation, 1962 (source: The Daily Beast)

The main thing I changed my mind about was the book’s voice, something that previously had really irked me. At first, it bypassed my preteen brain entirely that the novel was narrated by an older Scout, this misunderstanding spawning much of my disdain. I had been a progenitor of some Scout-level moments of precociousness throughout my own childhood – I believe here is the point at which I should recall how I excitedly asked my Reception teacher on my first day of school what we would be required to complete for homework that night – but even I had difficulty finding the scenario of an eight-year-old child using words like ‘condescension’ in everyday conversation plausible, also unable to believe that it could’ve been narrated from adulthood due to Scout’s fairly simplistic descriptions of many of the novel’s events. But then, perhaps I was still too young myself to realise that of course Scout was narrating her memories from an older perspective, but that she tells them just as she remembers them – with the naivety and altered context with which she experienced them in childhood. There’s a kind of poetic mystery to the presentation of her memories without the proper, adult context we readers are so eager to have shown to us, her retrospective realisation of such details all to be discovered and deciphered in the subtext. It, too, was kind of beautiful how subtly Lee used this lack of context, the way the deeper messages are intertwined within what was not written, to represent one’s coming of age – how you begin to realise deeper truths and become more open-minded as you gain more years to your name, and how these changes are often so subtle that you don’t even notice them until you think back. This evokes the kind of foggy, innocent joy we often feel towards our childhoods – and yet, it also challenges our ideas about nostalgia in a spectacularly confronting manner by using this innocence to narrate a selection of the book’s most horrifying sequences. I particularly loved this about the novel, especially as a teenager who is simultaneously excited yet terrified by her impending entry into the adult world, and it’s understandable that a younger me simply could not yet appreciate this.

Author Harper Lee in 1961 (source: Getty Images)

I further adored the novel’s usage of the small town setting. Lee adeptly utilises such a backdrop both to develop a focused ensemble of intertwined, endearingly bizarre characters, and to further juxtapose the comforts of the setting’s quirky nature with the mindless prejudice and evil such concentrated isolation can breed – the contrast afforded by the latter handled in an incredibly skillful, realist manner, reflecting the often contradictory complexities of our day-to-day lives. This has long been a fiction cliche, but I now unashamedly fall for it every time, the version of me who recently reread the book having since become avidly in love with Gilmore Girls (of course, a much more positive portrait – although Mockingbird is also incredibly optimistic in tone for a lot of its narrative!) and Twin Peaks – things that a younger me just hadn’t yet had time to discover!

Of course, the book is not without its flaws, the greatest of these being its datedness. The frequent usage of then-socially acceptable racial slurs by even its “good” (for want of a less simplistic term) characters make the modern reader cringe, particularly when juxtaposed with the fact that the exploration of the effects of racism and prejudice on society is perhaps the book’s thesis statement. However, although this aspect of the book remains unacceptable by our standards, so much of its thematic content and general sentiments on the vileness of racism and those who follow it, the acceptance that everyone should feel toward their fellow human beings, still ring true in an age that will be defined in future history textbooks by its widened cultural divide, and the horrifying uprisings of bigotry and violence that have stemmed from this. The book’s sentiments were so beautiful in both their angry passion and their undying, almost heartrendingly naive optimism, and the contrasting of this with incredibly horrifying – in that such things could ever be thought of as happening at all, and in that they still continue to occur, to some degree, close to ninety years from the book’s setting – events, such as the trial’s verdict and the fate of Tom Robinson, makes for affecting, relevant reading. This appreciation of its social sentiments  is something that thankfully has been a constant between both my readings.

A mockingbird, Lee’s symbol of innocence (source: Ryan Hagerty/The National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

It’s kind of funny, because in the end, I feel like one of the greatest messages I took from To Kill A Mockingbird is that of the slow, almost unnoticeable crawl that is one’s coming of age – and perhaps, my relationship with the book carries this too. Twelve year old me couldn’t appreciate the narrative because she didn’t know enough about art, about the world, she hadn’t grown up enough herself to see the potency of its craft and its message-making – and yet I am not sure I have discovered everything about it either. I feel that if I were to reread it again in a few years’ time, renewed experiences and wisdom would ensure that I would yet again take away different ideas. It’s cool how things change, right?

Dreaming of the Golden Dream: on Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’

So over this past year, I’ve begun to attempt to become as well-read in the “cult classic” canon as possible, which I’ve also semi-documented on here too. So far, the series includes my previous post on On The Road, plus this one on Slouching Towards Bethlehem  – future ones will include A Clockwork Orange, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, Carol and The Man Who Fell To Earth, all of which I’ve recently read, plus probably One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, The Great Gatsby and Nineteen Eighty-Four, all of which currently sit in assorted places around my house, ready for when algebra revision won’t eat up all my reading time … Enjoy!

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The book’s original cover

There are some books which are destined to entirely engross and change the course of your life. These books are perhaps the most beautiful, the most eloquent, the most thoughtful thing you’ve ever laid your eyes across, and you know – almost as immediately as you dive into the first chapter – that it will force you to spend the rest of your life rereading it on endless loop and quoting its every word to everyone you meet. I have been lucky enough to have been blessed with a couple of books of this ilk within my life. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of these. Perhaps it is the greatest of them all.

“I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

(from ‘On Keeping a Notebook’)

Bethlehem first appeared on the shelves of bookshops and bedrooms alike in 1968. Consisting of a collection of essays and prose that Didion had penned for various publications throughout the 1960s, the book was her first nonfiction work. It is divided into three sections, with around six or seven essays in each: “Life Styles in the Golden Land,” which is themed on California and society, “Personals,” which is themed around Didion’s own musings and life, and “Seven Places of The Mind,” which focuses on various places around America that affected Didion’s life. Didion writes about an assortment of subjects: on being young, self-respect, the hippie movement, Joan Baez and her Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Hawaii, New York, communism, her family, the “American dream”, the effect of “Las Vegas marriages” on society, the juxtaposition of outsiders’ perceptions of California as a “paradise” and of a then-topical, somewhat horrific murder case that had recently occurred in San Bernardino … Perhaps the manner in which each of these subjects contrasts the other makes it, to someone who has never read the book, seem incoherent and directionless – yet this could not be further from the truth. It is held together by the atmosphere that Didion cultivates with her extraordinarily insightful and eloquent writing style – an atmosphere that refracts the sunny glamour of California at the time and turns it into the haziest, darkest, craziest, most chaotic, and yet most alluring, most fascinating and most beautiful thing that one can ever lay their eyes upon. It is unbelievably articulate, and yet it is not void of the emotion that is so often missing from some writers of a similar intellect. Even if the book’s subjects were not as interesting as they also happen to be, it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that I – and a myriad of other readers – would probably still hold the book in relatively high regard on the quality of her writing style alone.

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Didion in San Francisco in 1967, while writing the book’s title piece – a think piece on the realities of the hippie movement.

And Didion’s essays – both her choice of subjects, and her insights – are just that, too; beautiful, alluringly dark, insightful, thoughtful and fascinating in the greatest sense of the word. She writes passionately and emotively, and yet aloofly, in that effortlessly and mysteriously cool manner that always appeared to be at its most potent in the more sophisticated corners of America throughout the ‘60s and ’70s. Her writings within the book show her to be of the best order of ‘opinionated’ – someone whose thoughts are educated and well-considered, but nonetheless definite and strong – and yet, she never appears to truly take sides on her subjects; instead, she often opts to present her insights as balanced yet captivatingly unique images within each essay, gently nudging the reader to a conclusion of their own.  She curates a fascinating array of contrasting subjects – each gifted with thoughtful metaphors on the workings of American society and the human condition – like a delightfully bizarre contemporary art gallery in the basement underneath a back alley, somewhere. It forces you to think – about humanity, society, culture, our emotions, everything – more than maybe you ever have before. Although it has now become a cliche to say that calling someone a ‘genius’ is a cliche, I feel that, if there were ever any authors deserving of the term, Didion would undoubtedly be well among them – and it is her wisdom imparted within her writing that cements this. 

“One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before.”

(from ‘Goodbye To All That’)

The few occasions where she removes herself from this formula – most notably in the “Personals” section of Bethlehem – make for equally thrilling reading, as well. The almost confessional, thoughtful and diary-like style she uses for these – musings on subjects like rejection, and self-respect, and creativity – predate the advent of the blogosphere by over thirty years, and yet she still manages to considerably better the greater internet-based purveyors of the style. There is little more in this world that makes you think as hard, and make you want to yell, “Yes! I relate!” over and over again to your bedroom walls, and want to carefully write out each essay on little cards to hand out to everyone you pass on the street, than these. It is the kind of writing that you love as obsessively as a music fan might love their favourite band – the kind that sums humanity up so insightfully and beautifully that you feel that not sharing it with as many people as possible would be a disservice to the homo sapiens species.

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The book’s ‘On Self Respect’, as it was originally published in Vogue in 1961

And yet, these several hundred words I’ve tried to use to explain my love of Bethlehem do not even seem to come close to explaining the sheer exhilaration that is reading the book – how Didion’s musings will utterly enthrall and fascinate you, and make you meditate on the world, like no other book probably will; how reading it drags you into the brand of glamorous Californian cool that she practically created, and how it is only one step short of making you run to your computer to book a one-way ticket to Sacramento; how it, unlike so many books both before and since, is unapologetically feminine in both subject and writing style, and how incredible it is to read this as a young woman. Perhaps only Didion’s own words themselves can do this.

“Our favourite people and our favourite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.”

(from ‘7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38’)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of the most incredible things I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Go buy yourself a copy. It will change your life. 

(And a gold star to everyone who realised that my insertion of quotes between the paragraphs is a reference to the structure of one of the book’s essays, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’!)

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The queen of glamorous, Californian cool!