When asked to name my favorite activity, I have to narrow the selection down to perhaps five. One of them is certainly reading. I have always loved to read and begged my mother to teach me to read well before I started elementary school. One of my favorite destinations, as soon as I was old enough to cross the New York City streets, was the neighborhood public library. The librarians knew me by name and regularly recommended books. They sometimes even bent the rules and let me take out more books than the normal limit at any one visit, and I devoured them all.
This revelation is probably not so surprising considering the job I hold. My guess is there are many millions more like me. So it is no wonder that the PBS series started last spring, “The Great American Read,” in which viewers rank their favorite novels, has drawn such an enthusiastic response. This week the winners on the list of 100 favorites were announced. The finalists were: “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Lord of the Rings,” the “Harry Potter” and “Outlander” series and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee won.
“One of the best-loved stories of all time, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has been translated into more than 40 languages, sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, served as the basis for an enormously popular motion picture and was voted one of the best novels of the 20th century by librarians across the country,” according to “The Great American Read” website. “A gripping, heart-wrenching and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father, a crusading local lawyer, risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.”
The PBS website continued, “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ led ‘The Great American Read’ voting from the first week, and kept the lead for the entire five months of voting, despite strong competition from the rest of our five finalists. It also topped the list of votes in every state except North Carolina (who went for ‘Outlander’) and Wyoming (who preferred ‘Lord of the Rings’). Such widespread support from readers across the country make ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ a worthy winner of ‘The Great American Read.’”
Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, 1926, and died in her sleep at her hometown in an adult care residence in 2016. She was named after her grandmother, the name turned backward, and the family pediatrician, Dr. William W. Harper. She used the name Nelle but took Harper Lee as a pen name.
Her father was a former newspaper editor who then practiced law and was a member of the Alabama State Legislature for 13 years. He once defended two black men, a father and son who were accused of killing a white storekeeper. Both men were hanged. This clearly influenced the plot of “Mockingbird.”
Lee studied law for years at the University of Alabama, where she also wrote for the university newspaper, but she did not earn a degree. In 1949, she moved to New York City and found a job as an airline reservation agent, writing fiction in her spare time. Then, in November of 1956, she received a gift from friends. It was a year’s wages with a note that read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
The following spring she brought a manuscript to an agent, and it wound up with a J.B. Lippincott Company editor named Therese von Hohoff Torrey. Tay Hohoff, as she was called, worked with Lee for two years, turning what she called “a series of anecdotes” into the finished book. During that intense time, Lee once threw the pages out the window into the snow, then called her editor in tears. She was told to go out and pick up the manuscript immediately. Fortunately for all of us, she did.