In the wake of the publication of Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee’s first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, there have been a bunch of hot takes about how much more “realistic” the Atticus Finch character is in this book because he is racist.

That doesn’t make him more realistic. It makes him more in sync with societal standards at the time, but it doesn’t make him more realistic.

In my writing classes, I often have a kid say during workshop that so-and-so isn’t a realistic character because almost everybody does X and this character does Y. To which I ask, “Does it make sense for this character to do Y?” If the answer is yes, then that character is realistic, regardless of what most people do.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is, as far as we are able to tell, very much not racist. This is not an unrealistic character trait for him because he is portrayed as someone who is guided, quite strictly, by reason and as someone who sees evil in society as the product of a divergence from reason. Those two things could very well lead to a man in Alabama in the 1930s not being racist. Yes, of course, most white people in the 30s were racist. Especially in Alabama. That’s why Tom Robinson is convicted. But Atticus Finch as a non-racist is not unrealistic, it’s just uncommon. It is the uncommon things about characters that make them interesting. In fact, I defy you to find a single interesting character who behaves as we would expect them to based on the societal norms that surround them.

In the case of Atticus, part of what makes him different also nearly causes his downfall. His inability to believe that there is such a thing as true evil (in the form of Bob Ewell), causes him to discount a threat to his children, who are then nearly killed as the result of his negligence.

To Kill a Mockingbird is often dismissed by those who don’t have a good grasp of the text because they only read it in high school or middle school, but it is a complex work that showcases the full range of human morality. Atticus, certainly, represents that which is purely reasoned and moral, but people such as him do exist. His existence in an unlikely location doesn’t make him unreal (or perfect – a perfect man would not leave his children unprotected). It only makes him interesting.

June Book Log

July 2, 2015

I am half way to 100 books now, which is pretty cool. I’m certainly reading more than I’ve ever read before. This month, I read nine books. Here they are:

1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (4/5) – This was my latest read with Simone. It was fun. We’ve generally read classic books together and it’s been nice. I wasn’t read to a ton when I was little, so I missed out on a lot of these. Like other good kids books, this manages to say something without preaching.

2. Dead Man’s Cellphone by Sarah Ruhl (4.5/5) – Though she is almost certainly an acquired taste, I think Sarah Ruhl might be my favorite contemporary playwright. Her plays are unapologetically odd and this was no exception, but she does a great job with her characters, and though I can read one of her plays in an hour or two, I always think about it for weeks after I read it. The entire premise of this play is that a woman is with a man when he dies and keeps his cellphone and keeps answering his calls for him, trying to comfort people. It’s often quite moving.

3. The Once and Future King by T.H. White (5/5) – My childhood love of Arthurian legend rekindled itself recently, and I found myself reading this wonderful volume. It is a four “book” book, the first of which was the basis for the Disney movie The Sword and the Stone. It is not a children’s book though. At least not after the first part. Much of it is very, very dark. And, having read it, I can’t imagine why anyone else would ever attempt a modern re-telling of the story. It’s never going to be as sad and charming as this book.

4. Dreaming Frankenstein by Liz Lochhead (3.5/5) – I loved half of this volume and thought the other half was merely adequate. It’s a collection of all her poems up until 1984, and generally, I favored the poems she wrote earliest. The later poems in this volume needed a firmer editorial hand and often lacked the crispness of the wonderful early work.

5. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (3/5) – This was an adequate novel, which is best I can say for it. It gets better as it goes, but there’s a good deal of cliche and the writing feels very much like generic MFA-style. I nearly put it down several times, but it was easy enough, so I kept on with it. Not something I’d recommend.

6. The Keep by Jennifer Egan (4.5/5) – Boy, Jennifer Egan is a fantastic writer. This was the perfect antidote to the ordinariness of Everything I Never Told You. Egan doesn’t sound like anyone but herself. There are three  storylines in this and they fit inside each other like perfect matryoshka dolls. The ending chapter contains a twist that I had to think about for a while, but I think it really works. Anyhow, great book.

7. Feminine Gospels by Carol Ann Duffy (5/5) – Somehow, I’d missed Carol Ann Duffy entirely until recently. Having encountered a few of her poems in a professional development thing, I requested a bunch of her books from the library. This was the first one that arrived and it’s wonderful. Her poetry, as I’ve experienced it so far, is pure honesty.

8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (3.5/5) – Until this book, I’d never read anything by a Bronte. Meh. It was okay. Definitely not the worst book I’d ever read, but at this point, I’d rather George Eliot or Charles Dickens if I’m going with old Brits. Too many coincidences that come out of nowhere. A bit too heavy with the symbolism. I did care about the characters by the end and generally enjoyed the read, but I didn’t find this to be a great book.

9. Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Worsley (5/5) – I’ve always had a thing for arctic and antarctic exploration. This is a first hand account of one such endeavor gone wrong. It was written by Ernest Shackleton’s second in command, and he could have been a writer if he’d wanted to. It’s a wonderfully paced, fascinating adventure story. There are shades of Moby-Dick here in the man vs. nature conflict. It’s not as deep as that of course (it’s only 140 pages), but there is real substance here.