Harper Lee could have written What I Ate Today, and we would be scampering to the nearest bookstore to get our hands on a hardback copy. Lee has a knack for doing this to us.
She is two for two.
Go Set a Watchman was a rough draft that underwent more than two years of revision and editing so severe that the entire plot had to be rewound 20something years in order for a younger Scout, a more tolerant Atticus, and To Kill a Mockingbird even to come to life. (Pay attention here, composition students: Revision is always a good idea.)
I boarded the Harper Lee train like the rest of America and pre-ordered a copy, knowing good and well there would be no shortage of copies today, which is the much anticipated release date that has made an entire country temporarily forget about ISIS, Donald Trump, and the Confederate flag gay marriage.
Here’s why: reclusiveness is attractive. Not attractive in the physically appealing, romantic sense, but in the curious, mysterious sense. Harper Lee has exhibited a reclusiveness so acute that she makes Emily Dickinson seem like a Kardashian. This is why we love her. This is why everyone in the South claims TKAM to be their favorite book of all time and why everyone outside the South claims their hometown really is Southern, even if not geographically, or declares herself a history buff or has had an incurable crush on Gregory Peck or whatever it is that Katie Couric went on and on about last week that somehow qualified her as a TKAM expert. But this is not my point.
My point is that much of TKAM’s 55-year appeal, which has clearly transferred to Go Set a Watchman, is Harper Lee’s self-imposed exile from the public eye. We love that stuff. When a famous person decides, “That’s it, I’ve done something pretty cool here, and now I’m going inside for the next 55 years,” we line up on the sidewalk and wait for a shadow in the window while we rummage through her trash.
The Austin Phelps quote, “Wear the old coat, and buy the new book” hangs above my desk. It serves not as a reminder that I should accumulate books and books and books like a person with a disorder, but as a reminder that some things last and others do not. Books themselves do not last—I know that. I’m not an idiot, usually. But what we take from them certainly does. And while that sounds awfully poetic and preachy, well … whatever. TKAM lasts.
While riding that previously mentioned Harper Lee train on the eve of today’s release, I sat at the popular kids’ table to read TKAM along with everyone else because that’s what the media suggested we should do: read or reread the novel on Monday. The problem was, I couldn’t find my copy anywhere. Some kid who lives here has misplaced it. But after the yelling and the unshelving and the accusing, I realized, “Why do I need to read this again anyway?” A conservative estimate is that I have read TKAM 27 times in this life, beginning in sixth grade, and I have seen the movie at least twice that number. I sort of know the story. So I went to bed and waited for the prequel.
If Watchman poses any threat of undoing everything we know and love about Atticus, Jem, Scout or any other character, then we have ourselves to blame. We approach a story with our own experiences, our own views, our own assumptions, and we block out the nice folks on TV who are hell bent on telling us why this is good or bad or why the author did this or that. We hold on to the innocence and imagination of TKAM and whatever it is that draws us to this story, and we take the best next step, which is to shut up and read.
I like to believe Harper Lee would say the same thing.