Thursday, February 5, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird and the New Old Novel

My beloved copy of a book, read more than a few times.

Harper Lee, the author of one of my favorite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, has written a second book and it will be published in July. The news hit, sending a jolt of excitement through my heart. According to Lee’s publishing house, the story is about the protagonist, Scout, returning home as an adult. Lee said it was her original book, and the editors, after reading the flashbacks about the girl’s childhood, suggested Lee write a book from the point of view of Scout as a child. And To Kill a Mockingbird was born.

Recently, Lee’s attorney found the old manuscript, and Lee decided to share it with the world. Lee, who has always been one to shy away from publicity. A surprising twist. 

What bothers me, though, about such a story is that we can already see the marketing wheels turning. Any manuscript from Lee is a national treasure, and since it was written about 60 years ago, it’s a piece of history as well. The idea of it being the subject of book reviews, marketing and everything else that goes with a new book campaign makes me sad.

Imagine a reviewer found the book rather dull. Knowing that this was an initial draft of sorts given to a publishing house so many years ago, how could the reviewer really criticize the novel? It wouldn’t seem fair. Imagine a reviewer found the book brilliant, even better than To Kill a Mockingbird. Wouldn’t it be odd to make the comparison so many years after To Kill a Mockingbird has established its position in American literature?

I’m not saying Harper Lee’s work is beyond criticism. It’s just that, with the passing of so many years, it seems this new book isn’t really new. It’s more of a missing piece of the puzzle of American literature in that era. Perhaps we can compare it with other debut manuscripts from some of Lee’s fellow writers of the time. 

I think the book should be published. But not as a “hot new release” or “new bestseller.” Is there a way to release this novel in a unique manner—not set in comparison with others? We know it will sell more than the 2 million copies the publishing house plans to print. We know that it would spend quite a while on the best-seller list. 

Why don’t we exempt it from all of the hassle and all of the competition? Why don’t we even consider giving some of the proceeds to schools and literacy programs? 

This is an extraordinary piece of history. If only it could be treated as such.

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