On Books, Harper Lee, and Coincidence

By now most readers have probably heard that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, will be publishing a sequel to the beloved novel. This sequel will be out this coming July. The new book is set in the 1950s, twenty years later than To Kill a Mockingbird, and it focuses on a now-grown Scout and her father, Atticus Finch. Lee, however, wrote this sequel before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, which she wrote at the suggestion of her editor who wanted to see a novel told in the voice of a young Scout.

A few days ago, I was thinking about favorite books and what I read as a child and young adult. My younger daughter and I were discussing how much we both love the novel Jane Eyre. My niece mentioned that if she sees a movie version of a book, then she never reads the book, and if she reads a book, then she doesn’t want to see the movie version. I think movies and books are different forms of media and storytelling, and should be enjoyed on their own terms. (We were discussing The Hunger Games trilogy.) While we were talking, I thought of To Kill a Mockingbird, and how much I love both the book and the movie. I’m fairly certain I saw the movie first on network TV when I was a child, and then at some point, I found the book in my house, and recognizing the title, I decided to read it. Perhaps I was about 11? I’m certain I did not understand it all that first time, but I understood I was reading something wonderful. I’ve re-read the book several times (and I do picture Atticus looking exactly like Gregory Peck, not a bad thing). I don’t think I ever read the book as a school assignment, but I did re-read it when it was assigned to one of my daughters.

I’m sure I would have read To Kill a Mockingbird at some point in my life. After all, I did borrow it from the library when I was older, but I would not have read it that first time, if it hadn’t been in my house. I thought of all the books I read when I was young—simply because they were there. My mom took me to the library, I borrowed books from the school library, and I also bought Scholastic Books (including the copy of Wuthering Heights that I’ve mentioned in previous posts), but our house was always filled with books. I think that having so many books in the house–including the books of older siblings that I “borrowed”– influenced what and when I read. I wonder if mainly having books on e-readers and tablets limits that broader type of browsing? This is not a Luddite rant. I love my Kindle, but if I had a young child at home, he or she would probably not be reading the books on it. The fact that my girls grew up seeing my books on sex in history lying about the house is an entirely different conversation!

Education and reading are important themes in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout would have been a very different character if Atticus had not read to her and taught her to read at an early age. How does coincidence and what we read affect what we do and what we think? There must be some connection. Things to ponder.

A friend said to me recently that she had read several novels set during WWII, but that it was a coincidence. I’ve had the same thing happen. Once many years ago, I read a novel set during WWII, then another one that had an important WWII back story that I didn’t know about until I started reading the book. While I was reading one of these books, my family and I watched an episode of Star Trek Voyager in which the some crew members were caught in WWII holodeck program. Isn’t coincidence strange?

My husband and I watched the second episode of the British TV show Grantchester last night, now airing on PBS. (And now that I think about it, the story is set in post-WWII England and the main character, the young Anglican vicar, has flashbacks to WWII battles. Hmmmm.) Coincidentally, as I was thinking about coincidence, the vicar and his inspector friend discussed coincidence. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” says our vicar, as he looks at the body of a woman who had been murdered. “That’s funny, I don’t believe in God,” says the inspector. They return to the idea of coincidence and belief later in the episode.

So did you think you’d read one of my posts that does not mention food? Let me reassure you that the To Kill a Mockingbird scene in which Walter Cunningham pours molasses all over his food is one that made a big impression on me, and that there are many food references in the book. In watching the episode of Grantchester last night, I noticed that a dinner party and fruitcake are important plot elements. Coincidence that I would remember these things? I think not.

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

-Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird