To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those pivotal American works that everyone just “has” to read at some point. Critics have been singing its praises for decades, and the novel has become a fixture in the US literature curriculum. As an English teacher, I believe that I’m expected to like this sort of Pulitzer Prize willing slice of Americana, but I just can’t…here’s why:
Like most high school students, I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in one of my literature classes, and, like most high school students, I didn’t actually read much of it. I think my biggest issue with the work was the protagonist’s point of view. I was a modern, fifteen year old suburban male reading from the perspective of a Depression-era, prepubescent, rural girl. It just didn’t work for me. If Jem had been the protagonist, I might have been engaged, but as it was, I just could not get into the book. As I got older, my appreciation for “literature” matured and I started re-reading a lot of the books that I was supposed to have read in high school. To Kill a Mockingbird was on that list, and I was excited and eager to take another more critical look at it.
As I read the book, I tried to remain unbiased and open-minded, and to read the work carefully and critically. It had been almost ten years since I had semi-read the work, but I could still recall class discussions about plot points, theme, symbolism, and the like. This motivated me to continue reading – seeing how much I could remember, and what aspects of the book I had missed in high school. I found that I picked up on a lot of the subtle nuances in the text that I had previously missed (and were not discussed in my high school class). For example, I never really took notice of Miss Caroline’s discussion of Hitler and how it contrasted with her thoughts about Tom toward the end of the book. I also never paid much attention to Mr. Raymond’s character, but after rereading, I found him to be a complicated and fascinating personality who forced me to question my own understanding of personal identity and social perception. Scout was previously a hindrance to my ability to engage the book, but once I committed to reading the novel without bias, it was much easier for me to accept Scout’s point of view.
Reflecting on the novel as a whole, I still have to admit that it was not one of my favorite books. While reading, I tried very hard to see exactly what makes this novel so highly regarded. It is a touching, bildungsroman-esque story full of richly developed characters; it incorporates a number of important “universal” themes; it is written in a careful, thought-provoking manner; when read critically, the content forces the reader to confront important issues and contemplate his or her own personal biases; it lends itself easily to discussion; and it can be read on multiple levels. But I just didn’t like it. So why can’t I get into it? Why can’t I become engaged in this “classic” novel? There is no doubt in my mind that this book is incredibly valuable as a text, but shouldn’t reading be an enjoyable recreational activity? I definitely got a lot of personal insight from the book, but I was never fully engaged, and I pressed on to the end simply because I wanted to finally read this book cover to cover. It was a labor of achievement, not a labor of enjoyment.
If I had to define the most negative aspect of the book, I’d say it’s the language. I know that a lot of people find the southern dialogue cute and engaging, but I find it to be a distracting reminder that I’m reading American lit – generally, I don’t enjoy American literature; it’s just a personal preference. I’m also averse to the narration style and the rhythm of the sentences. Yes, they’re rich, complex sentences, and they’re well written, but I’m of the opinion that you should write in “verbs” rather than “adjectives” if you want to engage your audience – especially a modern audience. Scout says it outright: “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts” (pt. 1, ch. 7).
My other issue with the book stems from something Chuck Palahniuk said about engaging readers in his own writing process. In an essay on writing he states:
“My personal theory is that younger readers disdain most books – not because those readers are dumber than past readers, but because today’s reader is smarter. Movies have made us very sophisticated about storytelling. And your audience is much harder to shock than you can ever imagine.”
I think this point is incredibly true – most young readers are looking for something specific in the way an engaging story is told, in the way events are presented. I think that To Kill a Mockingbird has great content, but it is told in a traditional and unsurprising way. In my humble opinion, it doesn’t challenge the conventions of writing, and that’s why it doesn’t engage me.
With all that said, I still believe that To Kill a Mockingbird is a prime text to teach in a high school classroom, and I think I would be better prepared to teach it than most because of my aversion to the text. I’m sure some students do get something out of reading this book page-by-page, but I’m more concerned with connecting the themes in the novel to contemporary life. I want my students to think critically about race, identity, maturity, social inequality, and morality, but the novel is not the end of the discussion, it is a springboard. If I can get my students past the traditional and unsurprising storytelling in To Kill a Mockingbird, then I might just be able to engage them in the critical content of the text.
Here is another, like-minded review (though a bit more scathing). It’s also the site I stole the picture from. 🙂