What I’ve Been Reading: February 2006
Books checked out:
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
– – – –
“Until I feared I’d lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
Scout – To Kill a Mockingbird
Some books are cursed with their own importance, forever wallowing in the sludge that follows a high school literature class.
These books are brilliant – unnaturally good pieces of literature that transcend their humble novel beginnings and sit with the classics – but they’ve been saddled with the “required reading” tag, a sure fire way to cause anguish whenever its title is mentioned. Books like Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies and Brave New World are mired in the overexposure that comes with studying a book line by line, a process that tends to sap a little bit of the enjoyment away from reading.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the quintessential book to wear this tag. It’s been analyzed and critiqued by nearly everyone who has stepped foot inside of a high school. Sometimes twice. Its characters are as familiar as those of the Revolutionary War and as revered as the founders of scientific theory.
Oh, and coincidentally it’s a really great book.
Thanks in part to The Big Read, a program brought in part by the South Dakota Center for the Book, I picked up Mockingbird for the first time in twelve years. I didn’t seek out this assignment; rather, it came to me. I received a letter in the mail inviting me to a workshop, where I learned how to start a book group, how to discuss literature, and (most importantly) how to appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird. I went out and checked it out this month. It was the only new book I introduced into my life, aside from a handful of copywriting “how-to” books that I used to research a possible (hopeful) new career path.
Yes, you read that right. I didn’t buy a single new book this month. Not a one.
Lee’s book is more than just a fiction novel. It’s become a primer on how to write a successful book without losing any social relevance. It’s a case study of race relations in the south. It’s a coming of age story. It’s a chronicle of a child’s curiosity and understanding. Sometimes it seems cliché, but we have to remember that To Kill a Mockingbird created those clichés in the first place.
I’ll admit, reading about Scout, Atticus, and the town of Maycomb brought back a rush of pure unbridled literary joy. I forgot how good Mockingbird was. As I said, it’s usually drowned in critical thought and weeks of homework, and reading it for pleasure unleashed its true brilliance.
Maybe I’m gushing. That’s okay. I should – we’re talking about a classic of literature, here. If you’ve been reading this column for the past six months, you know I’m a man that sometimes loves a book or author a little too much. I named my iPod “Steinbeck,” for cripes sake.
To Kill a Mockingbird has a lot of things going for it. It’s timely, in a way, with Truman Capote’s name in the news and Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee being nominated for an Oscar, and it’s culturally significant in a way that few books are. Nowhere can you read about race and equate it with any discrimination. The racism displayed at times in Mockingbird is key to the story. Just as discrimination is key to our personal stories, whether we care to believe it or not.
I’m getting a little off track (and a little political, to boot) so I’ll leave off by saying this: The Big Read is important. I’m stopping short of pleading with you to read Mockingbird this month and I’m guaranteeing that the book will be pertinent. It will be worth reading. It will not disappoint.
And with that, back to the column.
If Mockingbird was the meat of my month’s literary sandwich, I used two books comprised of short columns as the bread. But, if we’re going to use a bread analogy, you’d have to keep in mind Terry Gross’s All I Did Was Ask and Hunter S. Thompson’s Hey Rube are about as different as pumpernickel and Wonder Bread.
Gross, the renowned host of NPR’s Fresh Air, strays from her usual medium to compile some of her most memorable interviews of artists, musicians, writers and actors. And memorable they are; Gross is the absolute best at what she does, treating everyone with respect and ultimately bringing a very personal side out of some very internally driven stars.
While All I Did Was Ask brings some real superstar interviews to the table – Nicolas Cage, Johnny Cash, Dustin Hoffman, James Joyce – the real gems are the more obscure artists. These are the ones that really illuminate the scene in which they lived. Many times there’s an interaction with a true legend. Joyce Johnson was Jack Kerouac’s lover when On the Road was released. Bootsy Collins backed up George Clinton. Mary Woronov hung out around Andy Warhol. Each fills us in on the real story behind the big names they once ran with.
A lot of the interviews do a great job of uncovering the motive and result of art, literature, and music. I found myself beginning to understand where an artist’s skills come from, and where those skills might eventually lead them. I put myself in the interviewee’s shoes nearly every time, wondering where I would have ended up given their circumstances.
On the other side of the spectrum we have Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson uses Hey Rube to bring together the first three years of his on-again, off-again ESPN.com column – an experiment that surprises me still today.
Who would have thought that The Worldwide Leader in Sports would consider Thompson’s eccentric and mostly off-center rants on gambling and football to be marketable? Who gave the green light to provide Thompson with space to write freely about whatever he wants, with the understanding that he at least mentions sports once or twice each column, if you don’t mind.
Make no mistake; Hey Rube is filled with sports talk. It’s just that, as you might expect, Thompson’s thoughts often wander, showing him in rare form railing on the current administration, the horrors of living in Aspen, and the joys of living in a fortified bunker. He talks at length about betting on football with a menagerie of celebrities. It’s not uncommon to hear talk of Sean Penn, Ed Bradley, Johnny Depp, and countless others that Thompson considered friends.
Or rubes. Thompson’s not afraid to comment on how much he’s won from his friends on football games. Above everything, this is a book about gambling. Not just a friendly bet on the home team, but the degenerate kind of gambling that occurs when seven men get together, watch horrible football games, and need something else to pass the time. The stakes are raised, the politics go out the window, and soon Thompson is more concerned with the 49ers than he ever was about Nixon.
There’s little separation between the organized nature of sports and the forked tongue of Thompson. Nowhere else will you hear lines like: “Watching the Baltimore Ravens play football is like watching scum freeze on the eyeballs of a jackass.” I’m telling you, Thompson knows his sports, but it’s even better for us that he knows his craft.
The odd thing is how attractive he makes everything sound, while at the same time seemingly hating every minute of it. Thompson’s obsession with gambling, football, and his own twisted thoughts sounds unnatural. It is. Still, Hey Rube left me longing to join him. It couldn’t have been that horrible to hang out and watch football with Thompson, except for the fact that you might get shot. Or even worse – you might be convinced to run a marathon with Sean Penn.
Thompson was one of a kind – a writer that will never be matched. Of course, the same could be said for Harper Lee. It’s amazing to think that Lee started and ended her career with To Kill a Mockingbird – the only novel she ever wrote. We all have a lot to learn from what a person writes. Sometimes, as in Thompson’s case, it’s fun, but peripheral. Other times, like with Mockingbird, the author manages to rise above and bring us something that can really change our viewpoints.
Reading has never sounded more important.