DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Apr 28 2008

Happy Birthday, Harper Lee

by Nolan R

Mockingbirdfirst_2

Often cited by American readers as their favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than thirty million copies and has been translated into more than forty languages since its publication in 1960.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.  While it has shown up on ALA’s list of most frequently challenged books, To Kill a Mockingbird was also voted the Best Novel of the 20th Century by Library Journal, and was ranked second only to the Bible in a reader survey of most influential books. 

Today is the 82nd birthday of Nelle Harper Lee, who since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird has sought a private life and makes few public appearances.  Ms. Lee was born and still lives in Monroeville, AL, which was also the childhood home of her longtime friend Truman Capote.  Every spring, thousands of tourists head to this small southwestern Alabama town–now known as the “Literary Capital of Alabama”–that inspired the fictional setting of the novel.  Monroeville presents an annual theater production of To Kill a Mockingbird in the historic courthouse and encourages visitors to tour the town.  Ms. Lee is seldom seen on these occasions, but does attend a high school To Kill a Mockingbird essay awards luncheon held each year at the University of Alabama.

In a rare public letter to O, the Oprah Magazine in 2006, Ms. Lee wrote about her love of books and reading: 

I arrived in the first grade, literate, with a curious cultural assimilation of American history, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapunzel, and The Mobile Press. Early signs of genius? Far from it. Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. Why this endemic precocity? Because in my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often–movies weren’t for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We’re talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression.

Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store’s books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another’s entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again.

Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.

And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up–some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.

Well said, Ms. Lee.  Happy birthday, and thank you for your wonderful book. 

Related articles:

Harper Lee Emerges for ‘Mockingbird’ Award (audio from NPR)

Harper Lee, Gregarious for a Day (New York Times)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken April 29, 2008 at 5:08 PM

I really enjoyed this article, Nolan. Thanks for writing it.

Nolan May 1, 2008 at 2:40 PM

Thanks, Ken! There are a couple of links that I wanted to add to the post…one of which wouldn’t work the other day but seems to be okay now.

Monroe County Heritage Museums
http://www.tokillamockingbird.com/

and

Monroeville and Monroe County Chamber of Commerce
(includes ticket info for the play)
http://www.monroecountyal.com/to_kill_a_mockingbird.html

On May 17th, they are holding a special event called “A Day in Maycomb”. Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout in the film adaptation, will be in Monroeville for this event. Ms. Badham is an art restorer and college testing coordinator now, but she also travels around the world conducting discussions on To Kill a Mockingbird.

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