A warning: this post was written at 3:00 AM. Anyone who tells you that reading before bed helps you sleep is a liar, because all it tends to do is inspire me to write half-coherent blog posts in a bout of book-drunkenness instead of getting a sensible night’s sleep before work.
I recently (not half an hour ago) finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the second time. This was not exactly my second full read of the book– I read it incessantly in middle school and into high school for a while. As eventually happened with all my favorites, though, it was eventually put on a shelf for a while. TKAM was added to my ever-growing collection of “books I list as a favorite”, and was left unread for exactly a decade.
I was 13 the last time I read this book. At 23, it is an entirely different experience.
Okay? Why do I care?
I’ve heard plenty of people talk about how re-reading a book can change their interpretation of it. However, this is the first time I’ve really been old enough to experience it for myself. And I should add: this hasn’t exactly changed my reading of the novel so much as it enhanced it.
A common complaint among my age group is that we still feel like children. We go through college, get a job, get an apartment, and suddenly realize that no adult actually knows what the hell they’re doing and the entirety of humanity’s really just figuring stuff out as they go. This is a legitimate complaint, and one we don’t prepare kids for in the least.
To my peers in that number, I say: re-read a book from a decade ago, and see what you’ve learned since.
Ten years ago…
The copy I own is the same one I first read. It still has “A.B. PENLAND 8B” written across the pages in very careful print, and has all my favorite lines from the 8th grade underlined and starred and otherwise noted. It lacks the fanart drawn in the margins that my favorite high-school books are so crammed full of (including a full extra scene with the witches in my 11th-grade copy of Macbeth), but it is mine and it is familiar.
This is what stuck out to me back then: how horrible Aunt Alexandra was. How much Scout, like me, identified more with boys than girls. How amazing it was that Atticus talked to his kids like they were people-in-training, not children. How baffling it was that the adults around him seemed to think this was a bad thing.
This is what mystified me back then: all the playground politics. The stuff about family background. Why everyone was so harsh to the Cunninghams.
I’m a little ashamed to say the race stuff didn’t really hit me at thirteen, not even enough to mystify me. Admittedly the reason is a positive one: I was raised in a fairly international household, so the ground-breaking, meaningful conclusions drawn by the characters didn’t seem ground-breaking to me. It just didn’t feel real. Atticus was defending Robinson because he was the good guy, just like Harry Potter went up against Voldemort or Beowulf going after a dragon.
The subtlety was lost.
And Ten Years Later…
Now, with a decade under my belt, it’s amazing how much deeper the book has gotten.
I’m still impressed by Atticus. I’m still mystified as to how everyone seems to view him as a horrible parent, but I was even more struck by how much he doubted himself. There are points where he calls himself quite literally a bad father, and says he’s “done the best he can.” At 13, Atticus Finch seemed like the ideal model for a parent to me: that self-doubt completely missed my eyes.
I still think Aunt Alexandra’s a bitch, and girls still completely mystify me. There were a few scenes where I was just as baffled as Scout, yet the reader was clearly supposed to see something she didn’t.
The racial component of the book has meaning to me now. In addition to the upbringing mentioned above, I’m as white as you can get: racial elements to stories always feel a little alien to me. I can understand them, empathize with them, they can even bring me to tears– but I will always have the knowledge that I am inherently distanced. I’m queer, I’m an atheist, and in so many ways I don’t fit into the boxes society likes to lay out… But I simply have not experienced what it’s like to be a racial minority.
What I love most about TKAM, though, is that the themes of marginalization go well beyond racism: something that completely missed me the first time around. Lee displays so many marginalized groups in so many ways: women through Scout, the abused and disabled through Arthur Radley, the Jews, the poor, children, everyone. I’m aware that this is the main theme of the book, and likely old news to anyone else who’s ever loved it– but somehow, to the 13-year-old Alex, the theme seemed to be limited to race and kids.
Maybe that’s just what I’d been exposed to.
And Ten Years From Now?
To return to what I said at the beginning of this post: if you feel like you haven’t grown up, read an old book. None of this is new analysis to people who read the book, I’m sure. But it’s new to me. Who I am has changed since I last read it.
Who you are when you read something catches in the pages like pressed flowers. As you read, you remember what you felt, how you thought, what you loved– but you also re-experience the book as who you are now. You process things differently, have more life behind you with which to understand the situation.
Makes you wonder who you’ll be the next time you pick it up.