In Memphis and other parts of the South and Midwest powerful storms are inseparable from the spring and summer landscape. Once upon a time civil defense sirens meant a tornado, prompting the requisite sequestration of our family in a tiny downstairs bathroom under piles of pillows. By age six or so I learned to fear any old thunderstorm that blew through our suburb.
My parents were having none of that, even when the power went out as it often did.
But I was allowed to burn a small votive candle in a ceramic owl lantern on my nightstand, and I could read by its warm light to my heart’s content, well past my bedtime, for as long as I wanted—even on a school night. My grandmother gave me a cheaply bound fairytale anthology when I was about eight; its stories and monochromatic illustrations held me in good stead through many a storm before it eventually fell apart.
I soon forgot the wind and lightning and angry claps of thunder, drifting to sleep instead wondering how it was possible for a princess to feel a pea through all those layers of fluff, or why any respectable prince would climb a tower prison on a girl’s ponytail (to say nothing of how she grew it that long in the first place). That book and others served as a powerful tincture to ease big anxieties in a fraidy-cat girl; it was the start of a trend that led to a voracious appetite for the printed page.
I had every intention of honoring Harper Lee today, the author of my favorite story, one that came to me a few years after the fairy tale years and captivated me even more. I had so much to say about it, and about her, her writing style, how the South seems to churn out exemplary fiction writers through the ages. I listened to an assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird on the radio on Friday, and a remembrance of Harper Lee today. The voice-over from the 1962 movie took me right back to the story and to the South, and reminded me why I love them both so much. And I always, always identified with Scout, the story’s narrator.
Big Thinkers have tried to figure out why the book has had such staying power: why it is still read in schools, still talked about and studied, still relevant. In the radio piece I heard on Friday theories were advanced left and right about racism and Atticus Finch’s character especially (particularly in the new book, which I have neither seen nor read but in which he is purportedly revealed as racist).
Here is my own explanation in a nutshell: all these folks are overthinking it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good story, and Ms. Lee was one of the best-ever descriptive writers, and that is all. You can tear apart themes about race and the Deep South all you want, but the bottom line is this—Harper Lee wrote an engaging narrative, and she wrote it well. She knocked it out of the park, as they say. She wrote the book just before I was born: she could not possibly have known the tenor of race relations in America in the here and now. But if the book speaks to a new generation of readers, all the better. It’s that staying power, some would argue, that makes a thing a true classic.
Today when I tried to unearth my beautiful hardcover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, though, I ran into a road block: I could not find it.
I climbed over piles in the basement storage room, trying to locate a box that looked familiar. I peeled back packing tape and lifted cardboard flaps, scanning titles, pulling out volumes one at a time. Nothing.
Then I found an open box and removed a few books stacked on the top. My hand found its way to a family history, the spine covered in mildew and the cover warped. Thence to a David Sedaris collection—the same. And a beautiful edition of The Wind in the Willows I once read aloud to my son, the slipcover damaged, and the book showing signs of moisture damage. I was horrified. Every single box contained books in a state of decline, damp to the touch, or reeking of must.
I’ve moved three times in as many years, and with each move another precious possession is lost or damaged; I suppose that is to be expected. Before my thousand-mile haul from Tennessee to Vermont in 2012 I’d already spent the better part of a calendar year paring down the artifacts of a failed marriage and family life to the prized possessions (many pre-dating my marriage) that would see me into an unknown future. The remains were what I considered important, the things I would squeeze into the big yellow Penske truck on the front lawn of my erstwhile home. Loss and damage: it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve already downsized to the things that are truly meaningful.
I feel a connection to my books going back to those stormy Memphis days and even before. Ironically, I spend far more time writing now than I do reading. But it bothers me to my core that my books are in a state of disarray, that some are damaged or ruined, that others are missing: silly as it sounds, I feel like I’ve failed my trusted friends.
This afternoon I resolved to fix the problem. We are packed into cramped quarters here, a condition not likely to change soon. But my bookcases are coming out of storage and every single book will find a proper place on a shelf, including my missing hardover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.
The civil defense sirens have fallen silent; it’s high time all my old friends came out of sequestration.