Connecting to the Past by Picking up a Book

to kill a mockingbird

Until earlier this week, Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird was not available electronically. Readers had to discover Lee’s story of young Scout Finch growing up in a small Alabama town the old-fashioned way, by cracking open a book. (Or by seeing the acclaimed 1962 film version. But a student assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school would certainly never just watch the movie, right? Right?) But now, Lee, who just last year sued for control of the copyright of her work, has agreed to let her book be published electronically, for reading on computers and e-readers.

In a statement, Lee said: “I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries. I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

As many more people acquire e-readers and read their books online, this was undoubtedly a smart choice for Lee and her publishers, who surely want to give people the option of reading her classic novel for as long as possible, in whatever format is the most popular. E-books and electronic publishing certainly seem to be the way of the future right now, and it’s good to know that whatever the future will bring, people will still be able to read To Kill A Mockingbird.

A different question raised by this news, though, is if the experience of reading a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, which is so tied to a specific time and place in the past (Alabama in the 1930s) will be affected by reading on a digital platform. For a young person reading To Kill a Mockingbird today, they are looking at a world very different from their own. Could reading about it on an e-reader create an even bigger sense of disconnect?

Books, physically, are a spectacular and lasting connection we have to the past. Our lifestyles and hobbies and distractions may change, but reading a book is reading a book, no matter when you do it. A book printed today is not fundamentally different from a book printed one-hundred years ago (or two or three hundred years or more, for that matter). Little technical things may change, but it’s still pieces of paper with printing on them, bound in a particular order to convey a story or inf0rmation. When someone today reads about Scout Finch picking up a book, they are able to connect with that moment. No matter how different their life and situation may be from Scout’s, they understand what a book feels like.

But for people who have no real conception of what a physical book is, this moment of connection with the character and story will be lost. They may recognize what a book is intellectually, but have no understanding how it feels. It’ll just be another thing making Scout’s world alien from their own.

Listen, I’m not a Luddite. I love books, but have no problems with technology. I’ve read books on computers and iPads, and it’s pretty nice. Plus, here at Morgan Reynolds, we release all our books electronically as well as physically and even have some e-book exclusives that not only tell great stories but will also look spectacular on your digital screen of choice. And when you get down to it, the important thing is that people read at all- what they read on is a minor issue.

Furthermore, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic novel for a reason- it tells a great story filled with memorable characters, and features themes that resonate beyond any particular time or place.

But it is interesting to think that for centuries, the physical act of reading a book has remained largely unchanged, and very soon, it may be completely altered. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing- it just is. Still, even though To Kill a Mockingbird may now be accessible with just a quick click on your Kindle, it may be worth holding onto the old, dusty, dog-eared paperback on your shelf. The future is coming no matter what. It can spare a few moments to be wistful about the past.

To learn more about Harper Lee, and how her life inspired her classic novel, please check out Real Courage: The Story of Harper Lee by Katherine Don (ISBN# 978-1-59935-348-7) from your local library or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor