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To Kill a Mockingbird: Still relevant after 50 years

Published 1:03 am, Wednesday, May 26, 2010
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Fifty years ago, one of the most influential books ever written hit the book stands. It was largely successful from the get-go, earning its author a Pulitzer less than a year after it was published.

Its message touched large swaths of the American public, reaching across demographics and geographic boundaries. It turns out it even reaches across the boundaries of time -- To Kill a Mockingbird is not just a classic, but it remains as popular among today's readers as it was 50 years ago. In fact, it has proven to be so successful that author Harper Lee has never written another book.

Since its publication in 1960, few people got through high school or college without reading To Kill a Mockingbird (or at least not without seeing the movie). Of course, that can be said of many works of literature, but this one remains a particular favorite for readers 60 years ago or yesterday. Just say the names Scout, Atticus, Dill, Jem, Boo Radley and almost anyone would know who they are -- their names are so ubiquitous that they have become popular baby and even pet names.

To Kill a Mockingbird takes on some of the most controversial topics that were facing the American south in 1960, yet rather than viewing the book as a criticism, southern states continue embrace it.

What is it about To Kill a Mockingbird -- its themes and values -- that allows each new generation of readers to relate to Lee's opus?

To Kill a Mockingbird represents the best and the worst parts of American society. Its themes may have been a little more sensitive in 1960, on the cusp of the civil rights movement, in which the American south became a major focus. Yet at the heart of the book -- what has really allowed it to survive for generations -- is basic human nature.

It's idealistic, yes, but it it's not unrealistic. Few great works of literature get by without at least a touch of idealism. But it's the books to which audiences can truly relate that stand the test of time.

It's true, an Atticus Finch is a rarity. The Mayellas and Bob Ewells are also rarities -- we hope. The characters represent the opposite sides of the spectrum. The rest of us fall somewhere on the line between them. We are the Tom Robinsons, the Scouts, the Jems and the Dills -- even the Boo Radleys.

We are the observers -- we see others who act in a manner that we find admirable or despicable and mold our own characters accordingly. We know that we can never be Atticus Finch, but we can adopt similar principals and values. We hope we'll never be like Bob Ewell, and discard those attributes.

The story is really about human nature, about learning the difference between right and wrong, about getting to know a man -- learning all you can -- before judging him. This synopsis might sound overly simplistic -- well, Harper Lee didn't write this editorial -- and yet despite the book's controversial themes, its simplicity is what makes it something that can reach a diverse audience.

Fifty years ago, Lee probably didn't guess her book would still be on the shelves in 2010, much less be required reading. But what she had to have guessed is that her words would mean something to at least one person. It was an important message to send, and we're glad that she had the temerity to send it.

If you haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird, you're really missing out on a huge part of Americana. The film is good, yes, but as usual, it doesn't completely capture the integrity of the novel.

We live in particularly negative times right now, both socially and politically. News stories showcase people spewing invectives at each other. Bullying among school children has gotten out of control, basic consideration and decency seem out-dated and many people even fail to respect their president.

Perhaps it's time we look to To Kill a Mockingbird for guidance.

We encourage everyone to celebrate this significant anniversary -- if not by reading the book, then by remembering the values it has taught us.