Having seen the Post-It notes sticking out of the novel I finished recently, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, my husband remarked, “Oh, you’re so getting an ‘A’!” The last time I read this novel, about two decades ago, it probably was for a grade. This time, I read it just for fun as a participant in the Roof Beam Reader’s Read-along.*
I resorted to using Post-Its because this novel isn’t available as an ebook,** which would have allowed me to write copious notes without defiling the pages. Harper Lee, born in 1926, still prefers the “soft pages” of traditional paper to the “cold metal” of modern reading devices, telling Oprah in 2006 that “Instant information is not for me… can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer?” Despite her skepticism of “cold metal,” it may be that she is not the one limiting her novel’s availability to only the paper form. As I wrote in a previous post, When Our Literary Heroes Become Victims, one of the allegations in Lee’s lawsuit for breach of fiduciary duty against her former agent, Samuel Pinkus, is that Pinkus failed to “work the copyright” by “not respond[ing] to offers by HarperCollins to discuss the licensing of e-book rights.”
So, I turned all 323 “soft” pages of To Kill a Mockingbird by hand, the way I did two decades ago, a manual experience that added to the nostalgia associated with re-reading one of my favorite novels. It’s a compelling story about the innocence of youth, racial injustice, and societal change, the latter of which comes in baby steps, not leaps and bounds.
For those who may not know, this American classic features Atticus Finch, an esteemed lawyer in Maycomb County, Alabama, who is raising two young children, Jem and Scout, after their mother’s untimely death. Reacquainting myself with this family was a pleasure; it was as though we’d never been apart. Jem is just as brave as I remember, and Scout is as funny and headstrong. Their father is a thoughtful and fair-minded man whose parenting style reflects his legal experience. For instance, when Scout comes up with a variety of excuses to avoid going to school, Atticus says, “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases. In your case, the law remains rigid. So to school you must go (Chapter 3, page 33).”
Just as Atticus has parental discretion, and so bends certain house rules depending on the circumstances, the legal system retains flexibility with pockets of discretion. For example, prosecutorial discretion allows the government to decide what cases to pursue criminally and what penalties to seek, meaning that some people actually will get away with breaking the law while others won’t. This uneven result isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has said, “[such discretion] allocates sparse prosecutorial resources, provides the basis for plea-bargaining and allows for leniency and mercy in a criminal justice system that is frequently harsh and impersonal.”
But with increased discretion in law enforcement comes an increased potential for abuse. Racial bias in the justice system was well established by the 1930s, when the events in To Kill a Mockingbird take place, remained true in 1960, when the novel was published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and persists even today, with increased prosecutions and harsher penalties against individuals of certain racial and/or socioeconomic backgrounds. While most trials today aren’t as obviously racially biased as the trial of Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch’s client, we still haven’t quite achieved a legal system that truly provides justice for all. Change happens slowly.
*I hope that this will be the first of three posts on To Kill A Mockingbird, per Roof Beam Reader’s schedule (though I finished the book in advance of the “deadlines”): July 19th (chapters 1-11), July 25th (chapters 12-21), and July 31st (chapters 22-31). Whether I post on each of these dates depends on how much time I have for blogging over the rest of this month, but I encourage you to check out Roof Beam Reader’s blog on these dates to see what he and others have to say.
**[Update (4/30/14): To Kill a Mockingbird will finally be available as an e-book]