Revisiting the “Soft Pages” of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird_Misfortune of Knowing BlogHaving 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]

28 thoughts on “Revisiting the “Soft Pages” of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

  1. Pingback: What Should Kids Read In School INSTEAD of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

    1. Thanks! People usually think I’m crazy with the post-its (my highlighting and note-taking isn’t as obvious now, though–thanks to my e-reader). I adore TKAMB. I highly recommend re-reading it.

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    1. Thanks! I saw the movie a long time ago. I can still hear Gregory Peck’s voice (as I’m reading the novel), but I don’t remember the movie well enough to draw comparisons between it and the book. I should watch it again.

    1. Yeah, that’s what some of my college books looked like! I wasn’t as averse to writing/highlighting in my books back then, but I still went through a lot of Post-Its. My husband and I started dating our freshman year of college, so he is well aware of what my study habits were like.

  10. I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was in the 6th grade, and it is the first American classic I can remember falling in love with. Scout is a fun role model for 11 year old girls.

    1. Yes, she is a fun role model for 11-year-olds! She’s strong-willed and smart, and I think many of us can identify with her disdain for “girly” clothes. Have you re-read the novel since you were in the 6th grade?

    1. Thanks for encouraging me to re-read this book! Yes, the book’s themes remain relevant. I was in the middle of reading it when the Zimmerman verdict was announced. To quote “A Midnight in Paris'” paraphrase of Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun,” considering the Faulkner Estate just lost that pernicious attempt to restrict Fair Use at the district court level (yay!): “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past.”

  11. SF

    There’s something nice about picking up a well loved book and finding old notes scribbled in the margin, but your method of post it notes results in a pretty rainbow. It’s time I read To Kill A Mockingbird again.

    1. Oh, I wish there were something “nice about picking up a well loved book and finding old notes scribbled in the margin.” I prefer to keep my thoughts to myself until I’m ready to share them, and I just don’t like knowing other people can see what I was thinking (you can imagine how much I “loved” the Socratic method in law school!). So, I resort to Post-It notes if it’s a book with “soft pages.” Adam at Roof Beam Reader divided the book into thirds, so I used a different color for each segment. I almost felt like I was in middle school or high school again!

  12. I blame the movie for hearing Gregory Peck’s voice any time someone quotes Atticus. Since there’s only currently soft copies available, I need to find me one and reread. So many books, so little time.

    1. Yeah, that happens to me too! I hope you’ll get a chance to revisit the novel. It was fun to re-read it after all these years. It’s just as good as I remembered.

      1. Maybe I’ll just snag a paperback copy somewhere. It’s not like I wouldn’t want it in my library anyway. I’ve just sworn off buying things off Amazon for a month (thanks to recent buying sprees), so in a month… 😉

    1. I’m the same way! It’s one of those novels that has stuck with me over the years. I’m really glad that Adam at Roof Beam Reader gave me an “excuse” to revisit it. 🙂

  13. 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).” I remember how wise and yet almost sardonically comedic Atticus could be. Absolutely loved TKaMB.

    1. “Wise and yet almost sardonically comedic” is a great way to describe Atticus. He’s a role model for many lawyers out there, myself included, and I think he could also be a role model for parents in many ways. Thanks for stopping by!

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