Lucius Flatley opened this week’s coffee seminar by recommending a book, an American novel published 50 years ago this past July 11. According to him, this little novel was the finest book many would ever read. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he claimed, qualified for intelligentsia approval – those limp-wristed critics who looked for hidden meaning and deep thoughts – but it also is easy and enjoyable for simple folks like his listeners, who spend so much time drinking coffee.

The book has been a treasure to generations of English teachers attempting to mold the clay of the lumpy youth with whom they have to deal every day and, believe it or not, the kids liked it.

The book is one of the few cases, Lucius claimed, in which reading classic literature is more fun NASCAR or TV wrestling.

While most educators chose “Catcher in the Rye” to feed the minds of sallow teenagers and most literary critics were convinced that “Huckleberry Finn” was the great American novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still leads the pack in being easy to read and lots of fun, and as people get smarter, is slowly taking over first place as the best single novel.

The book is widely taught in schools in foreign countries. British librarians rank it “ahead of the Bible as one every adult should read before they die.” And if that ain’t enough, it was made into a great movie that won several Oscars – despite the fact that it had no sex, no special effects, no dinosaurs or monsters, not even a car chase.

The story involves racial injustice, nobility of man, weight of duty, love of family, and the destruction of innocence. It addresses issues of class, courage and compassion, as well as gender roles in the American south of the 1930s. It illustrates beautiful traits of human nature, and it does all this with ease and grace.

The author, Harper Lee, only wrote this one book – a circumstance equal to Joe Louis having only one fight, one that made him heavyweight champion. The flash of Ms. Lee’s genius was never again seen in print.

She grew up in Alabama, where she became a close friend of Truman Capote, a friendship that was to prove important after she finished college and moved to New York City, where she began writing a collection of essays and short stories. During this period, Capote encouraged and supported her – in fact, it was he who sent her to an editor he knew. One might suspect that Capote, one of the great literary stylists of his century, had perhaps some hand – advice or critical comment – during the book’s gestation, but it has never been seriously claimed.

The book is written in the voice of an 8-year-old girl, and it takes only a few pages for the reader to inhabit this lovely child’s mind and life as she explores the halcyon days of a small-town childhood – a childhood now disappeared. There were no girls lacrosse leagues or soccer moms. Children found their own entertainment and they lived in a small town in which curious life could be explored.

Although the story shows that reticence is a virtue, when a middle-aged attorney is revealed to be an accomplished rifleman and a hero to his children, the book appeals even to the NRA.

It exposes the consequences of slavery that, ever since Yankee investors and ship captains discovered they could kidnap and sell Africans for great profit, has cursed America. It also showcases the basic decency that exists in people regardless of what the flag-waving rednecks and good old boys did in killing an innocent man.

Above all, the book is concise – a little book. It employs no Greek mythological references or abstract symbolism, it avoids college seminar words, has short paragraphs and is very easy to read.

It is timeless, deserves to be remembered and enjoyed.

It could be the most fun you ever had sitting up – and it just might inspire you to greater things.

Rodney Quinn, a former Maine secretary of state, lives in Gorham. He can be reached at [email protected]


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