LESLIE CRISS: 'Mockingbird' celebrates five decades

By LESLIE CRISS / NEMS Daily Journal

“Books are the quietest and most
constant of friends; they are
the most accessible and wisest
of counselors, and the most
patient of teachers.”
– Charles W. Eliot

“Books are humanity in print.”
– Barbara W. Tuchman

“Until I feared I would lose it,
I never loved to read.
One does not love breathing.”
– Harper Lee,
“To Kill A Mockingbird”

Fifty years ago on July 11, 1960, J.B. Lippincott & Co. published a first novel by a young Alabama woman named Nelle Harper Lee.
A year later, that novel – “To Kill A Mockingbird” – was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; in 2007, its author received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Needless to say, the author and her book have made a profound difference in the lives of many. I know this because I am one of them.
Atticus Finch became a hero to me even before he looked like Gregory Peck. When I first read “To Kill A Mockingbird” in high school, I think I imagined Atticus as an amalgamation of my own father, my friend Betsy’s daddy, L.D. Boone, and my long-ago Sunday school teacher Bob Burkley.
To a young girl who grew up hearing folks from outside the South label all Southerners ignorant racists, Harper Lee’s characters – and message – did much to expunge that silly notion.
As long as I had Atticus, Scout and Jem, Miss Maudie, Calpurnia and Heck Tate to believe in, I could let go of that awful Bob Ewell.
Unfortunately, in our world Bob Ewells abound, but I choose to have faith the good folks outnumber the Bobs.
Nelle Harper Lee gave me that faith. And I’m grateful.
When my 10th-grade English classes were reading “To Kill A Mockingbird,” I asked them not to read ahead – we’d read together in class. But they were hooked from the beginning. Transported to the “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, those long-ago kids talked about the book between classes, in the cafeteria, in the bleachers at ball games.
I marveled as I watched them fall in love with the written word. And I understood as I saw this wonder of a book change their minds and their hearts.
When I lived in Los Angeles for a time, I’d often spend Saturday mornings going to garage sales with a cousin. On one such occasion, I found the copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” I treasure.
It lay in a heap of bound volumes on a blanket in someone’s yard, this hardback copy of my all-time favorite novel.
Its price? 25 cents. For what, I believe, is a first edition.
Call me crazy, but my initial thought was to confront the sellers with, “Do you have a clue what you are giving away?”
My second and final thought? “Here’s your quarter. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Harper Lee has not published anything since “To Kill A Mockingbird” 50 years ago.
Who can blame her?
How does one top perfection?

Contact Leslie Criss at leslie.criss@djournal.com or (662) 678-1584.