Tag Archives: classics

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?

Holy flowers floating in the air…

Kerouac's original cover design
Kerouac’s original cover design

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a change in my bookshelf. I rearranged it recently and saw that the stocks of YA books I was reading about a year ago were outnumbered by multiple orange spines. Of course, anyone who’s ever been into a bookshop will know what I mean by ‘orange spines’: Penguin Classics. Lately, I’ve been on a mission to become as well-read in these as possible, and so far this has been shaping up pretty well. I finished the first of these Penguins a few weeks ago: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

First published in 1957, On the Road follows aspiring writer Sal Paradise through several years of his life as he travels across America, becomes invested in beat culture (which dominated underground America at the time) and interacts with his fascinatingly eccentric cast of friends, most notably the infamous Dean Moriarty. Alongside Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and William S. Burroughs’ Junky, Kerouac’s novel is among the most enduring portraits of the beginnings of alternative culture, and is often regarded as one of the great books of our time. I’ve wanted to read it for years, so I had fairly high expectations.

Before I go on, I should mention that On the Road is a book you’ll either hate so much that you’ll want to entirely destroy its existence, or that you’ll love so much that you’ll reread it until every last page has fallen out. There is little ‘in between’. When it was originally released it garnered mass praise but was also (unsurprisingly) heavily criticised by many major reviewers, too. More shockingly, though, is that a quick glance through the book’s Goodreads page still shows this as well: there are numerous 1-star reviews expressing thoughts of its ‘UNBELIEVABLE TERRIBLENESS’ and of how it’s nothing but ‘a half-hearted justification of stupid, self-destructive, irresponsible and juvenile attitudes’. Yet these sentiments are juxtaposed with ones of the 4- and 5-star kind, reviewers commenting on how the book’s beauty changed their lives.  I find it fascinating that a book published almost sixty years ago can still divide us so much today.

It took me a long time to read the book – nearly four or five months, mainly because I was reading about three others at the time – yet I find myself in the latter group.  One reason for this is its unique style of writing, which must be among the greatest and most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Kerouac may not have been a technically accomplished writer, but his work exerts emotion and passion that is beyond many more polished novelists. On the Road rambles and stumbles from one paragraph to another with the incredible energy and intensity of the characters, their surrounds and their story, yet Kerouac casts a glowing sense of almost romantic nostalgia over it all. It’s not exactly subtle, and it is certainly an acquired taste, but it is easily among the most incredible things a person can read: spontaneous, fearless, full of fiery vigour.  It just flows so beautifully, and Kerouac uses the prettiest words and most beautiful phrases throughout – the best parts are akin to poured molasses. Take, for example, this famous passage:

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.

And, of course, the story itself is just as captivating. On The Road follows Sal as he drives, buses, and hitchhikes across America four times with his partner-in-crime Dean, meanwhile giving a captivating firsthand account of the time’s counterculture. Kerouac paints such an enticing picture of the US, one of incredible beauty. We see the vibrant reds and oranges of the West, the endearingly dangerous seediness of Chicago, the lively excitement of New York, the heady hangouts and experiences of the Beats, and the compelling images of all the fascinating people that Sal meets across the country. All of this is written about in the greatest prose, painting wonderful pictures in the mind of the reader. It is the kind of thing that makes you want to immediately buy a one-way ticket to America and travel across the country just like Sal and Dean…

Jack Kerouac photographed by Tom Palumbo circa 1956
Jack Kerouac photographed by Tom Palumbo circa 1956

On top of this, On the Road‘s characters are equally as fascinating. They are developed to an incredible degree, and perhaps this is due to the fact that they were based on real people (the book was originally a memoir until Kerouac’s publishers forced him to change the names). And yeah, most of the protagonists contain major flaws, ones that in many other cases would cause the reader to feel nothing but blind hatred towards them. The frenzied, ‘could care less’ charisma of Dean endears us to him at first, yet as the story progresses we witness the lack of regard he has for anyone around him – the way he thinks it’s perfectly okay to leave the latest of his wives at any given moment with no intention of returning, the way he deserts a lethally ill Sal in Mexico. We see that he is, in fact, not an overly nice person. Yet we don’t hate Dean, because we find him – the way he interacts with the country, the beat world – so interesting. Of course, the same goes for all the other characters – we wonder how Sal’s world will turn out, about the strikingly different lives of everyone they come across. They are so interesting, so intense, so human. And that’s what makes them so infinitely engaging – we can sometimes relate to them, as well as follow their adventures with both anticipation and dread.

On the Road‘s continued relevance could be debated, I guess. America is an entirely different land, now – the Beats, the beautiful landscapes, the fun painted in the book are now replaced by mass gentrification, disturbing levels of gun violence, questionable amounts of equality, the likely appointment of a nutty billionaire as a presidential candidate. The characters would no longer be able to get away with many of their antics, and their social attitudes – though progressive at the time – are now somewhat outdated. Even the scenes of drugs and sex are no longer that shocking. Yet, as with all classics, On the Road is still able to hold a major place in the 21st century world: the passionate ferocity of Sal and Dean’s friendship is massively relatable to anyone with best friends (though hopefully our relationships are a little more healthy!), and anyone who associates themselves with worlds outside the mainstream can also relate to many of the book’s major themes; we can see its influence on other alternative literature, cinema, music, fashion, on the way the world in general lives its many lives; and its message – of how we see our heroes – is still massively important to remember, especially in a world that worships the mass celebrity. In my eyes, there is little wonder as to why it is still enjoyed by millions today!

Sam Riley as Sal in the 2012 film of On the Road.
Sam Riley as Sal in the 2012 film of On the Road.

And so I found On the Road to be among the greatest books I’ve ever read – a powerful tale of friendship and counterculture; the most gorgeous frenzied flow of words shrouded in a hazy, nostalgic romanticism; such an influence on the music, the cinema, the fashion, the culture that I love. Looks like my little Penguin paperback might need a hardier replacement sometime soon…

Rating: 4.5 stars/5