Reading To Kill a Mockingbird As An Adult

Revisiting favorites from your childhood or teenage years as an adult can be a strange experience. The fresh, hilarious jokes in the film that you practically wore out in high school are suddenly cliché. The song you requested at a throwback party isn't nearly as danceable as you remember. (I've heard of this happening, though the power of The Backstreet Boys hasn't faded for me — or Joe Manganiello — in the slightest since '98.)

I had the chance to revisit many of the books I loved and despised in high school when I took a young adult lit class in grad school, and was surprised by how much my perspective had shifted in less than 10 years. I discovered that the whiny, frankly creepy Holden Caulfield I had rolled my eyes at when I was the same age as the Catcher in the Rye protagonist was just a sad, scared kid, and 100% more sympathetic and readable. On the other hand, no matter what case our professor built against Judy Blume's Forever as dated and stiff, my classmates and I stayed fiercely loyal to the (far superior) Fifty Shades of Grey for the middle school set. Sometimes a book's merit is just being exactly what the reader needs it to be.

I first encountered Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 15. It was assigned alongside reading comprehension guides and vocab quizzes (because a word all growing millennials needed to learn was chifferobe). Revisiting the novel now, four days before the publication of the sequel, Go Set a Watchman, I was struck by what seemed important to me then, and what I realize I needed from it now.
In high school, To Kill a Mockingbird was less a reading assignment and more of an event. After finishing the books, our class watched the classic film (with minimal complaining over its lack of technicolor), and I later accompanied my parents to a stage version. Like with most assignments, we were reminded, again and again, that this was capitol-I important literature. That can be off-putting for teenagers, but since the protagonist and her brother were kids even younger than us, Mockingbird seemed much more accessible than, say, The Scarlet Letter.

As an adult, I was struck by how bluntly the book paints not only the racism of many of the inhabitants of Maycomb, Alabama, but also the hypocrisy. When one of Scout's classmates brings up the actions of Hitler against the Jews, her teacher explains, after expressing horror at Hitler's actions, "Over here we don't believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced." And still, the teacher makes racist remarks after the sentencing of the black man accused of rape, Tom Robinson.

When I read the book as a teenager, I definitely did not fully grasp the tenor of what Atticus said about defending Tom Robinson: That however hard he tried, he would lose, that logic and reason could not win against racism. Sadly, that message is still echoed everywhere, from newspapers to Twitter feeds.
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I'm excited for Go Set a Watchman. Though To Kill a Mockingbird is told, vaguely, through the eyes of an adult Scout looking back at her childhood, there's little grown-up reflection. She simply points out the bewilderment of a child witnessing the horrifically cruel world of adults. Now that I have my adult perspective, I'm looking forward to reading hers.
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