Somehow, I escaped reading To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and read it for the first time on my own in college. Picking it up proved to be fortuitous; not only did I love the novel, but Iâ€™ve also taught To Kill a Mockingbird maybe ten times since that first read.
Truthfully, it is a joy to teach, but depending on the group of students, it can also be a bit frustrating. Students who live a fast-paced life and who embrace the â€œReading is boringâ€ mantra sometimes equate reading To Kill a Mockingbird with watching paint dry. Simply put, they donâ€™t see much of anything extraordinary in the novel. Some of you are aghast, I know. (And some of you perhaps agree, I know. Itâ€™s okay, I still love you.)
This year, one student came into class declaring, â€œI hate this book, and my parents said they hate this book.â€ Then she asked, â€œIf so many people hate it, why do we still read it?â€ Never mind that it won the Pulitzer, or more to her point, that it reportedly sells about a million copies a year despite being first published over fifty years ago.
This is the sort of attitude I have to wrestle with while teaching many works like To Kill a Mockingbird, all while reading through the lens of an educator whoâ€™s been commissioned to â€œteach literature.â€ While the challenge of this task can be fascinating, in my mind, the story itself often begins to get crowded out.
So, Iâ€™d been toying with an idea ever since we finished To Kill a Mockingbird two or three weeks ago. What if I read it again, I kept thinking, this time just for the sake of reading it? What if I read for myself, for the sake of the story, just to engross myself in Leeâ€™s voice, just to hear the story again apart from any literary dissection? The idea seemed almost audacious; as much as I love reading, to spend that many hours reading a book that wasnâ€™t for any of my classes, that wasnâ€™t for any of my kids, that wasnâ€™t for any sort of professional development, but that was a book Iâ€™d already read countless times? After all, Iâ€™m one of those people who could read 24/7 until Iâ€™m a hundred and hardly scratch the surface of what Iâ€™d like to read in this lifetime.
As a case in point, I submit to you my nightstand. At any given time, it is stacked with books that fill one of the above-mentioned reading requirements. Current titles include Marilynne Robinsonâ€™s Lila (one of my favorite authors), Brett Lottâ€™s Before We Get Started (a writing memoir swiped from my dad), Douglas Fisherâ€™s Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading (for reading professionals), Brando Skyhorseâ€™s The Madonnas of Echo Park (snagged for a buck and a quarter at my last bookstore visit), L.M. Montgomeryâ€™s Anne of Green Gables (trying to figure out when Baby-Girl will be ready for it), Robert Louis Stevensonâ€™s Treasure Island (seventh gradeâ€™s next read), Katy Simpson Smithâ€™s The Story of Land and Sea (grabbed off a library shelf when I saw the setting involves the coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina), J.R.R. Tolkienâ€™s Lord of the Rings trilogy (my oldest son and I are reading it together), and Louis Sacharâ€™s Holes (looking at starting it with my younger two children).
And so the list goes on.
And then there are the to-be-read books on my Kindle. 🙂
Yet there I was, wanting to read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book Iâ€™ve read and taught over and again. It seemed so extravagant, so self-indulgent, so myopic given my other interests and choices.
Then, during a recent social gathering, I overheard a conversation between two friends about the book. One had recently read it for the first time, and was fresh with his discovery and his admiration. I listened to them talk, their conversation laden with little of what often dictates mine.
I walked away from that conversation and knew it was time. It was time to do it now, I knew, when I was ten months away from teaching it again, at the time Iâ€™d be most able to turn off my teacherâ€™s mind to the gazillion things students should be looking for, contemplating on, and writing about with To Kill a Mockingbird. It was time to read something Iâ€™ve loved and taught for all these years, this time just for the sake of the story. G.K. Chesterton describes what I was craving as â€œthe mere brute pleasure of readingâ€”the sort of pleasure a cow must have in grazing.â€ That was the pleasure I sought.
And so yesterday afternoon, I sat down in my hammock by the edge of the salt marsh, opened my copy now worn from years of instruction, and began to graze, for â€œthe mere brute pleasure of reading.â€