A Pivotal Book

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To Kill A Mockingbird is 50 years old. In a story examining the relevance of the book today as compared to when it was originally published in 1960, the reporter, Lynn Neary, notes:

For the high-schoolers reading To Kill a Mockingbird today, America is a very different place than it was when Lee wrote her novel 50 years ago. Lee’s story of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus — a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape — came out just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation.

Is it really? Is America really a different place now? Haven’t Americans just found a new scapegoat for its own shortcomings? In the 1960s it was Blacks who were blamed for the social woes people were experiencing. In the 21st Century it is Mexicans who are blamed.

If it were only five months old instead of 50 years, I think sadly of a 30-something Harper Lee completing her first book, To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is most assuredly White and Tom Robinson might be Tom Gonzalez. The story would unfold during a severe recession in the “tired old town” of Tucson, Arizona.

The Lynn Neary is wrong. America is not a different place.

Another thing that remains the same:

“Trying to find your identity and realizing that your society doesn’t always tell you the right thing” is a particularly profound message for teens, Taylor says. “Sometimes you have to go against what everyone else says to do the right thing. All that kind of resonates no matter where you come from.”

I agree with the Virginia teacher Neary interviews. The struggle of self versus society resonates – is timeless – “no matter where you come from.”

But my book wasn’t Mockingbird. Growing up in New York City – the most culturally and racially diverse city on the planet – it was like a fairy tale – it didn’t resonate for me – it was too far fetched. I learned later when I left the diversity of the city that it was all true. When I left the city I got a taste of just how hateful America could be.

My book was The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll. Before the book, I had only known Jim Carroll as a singer –  a “one hit wonder” with a song listing his dead friends – a blast eulogy with a good beat.

It’s funny for such an important book in my life, I forget who introduced it to me. I know it was in high school and I know it was loaned to me. I remember I’d let it sit for months before I broke its spine. I just can’t remember who or under what circumstances they thought I would like the book.

Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries changed my life just like (according to Lynn Neary) Mockingbird changed Joanne Gabbin’s. Neary writes:

Gabbin read To Kill a Mockingbird when she was 17, and says that for her, it was a pivotal book. In Tom Robinson, the African-American man unjustly accused of rape, she saw not a victim, but a hero. He reminded her of her father and grandfather — African-American men who put up with untold humiliation in order to take care of their families. Atticus Finch gave her hope that there really were white people who would do the right thing — and she believes the book may have helped to make that a reality.

I read The Basketball Diaries when I was in high school so it might have been when I was 17 – I might have been older or I might have been younger (not much though). It was the first book since middle school that I had read outside of an English assignment.

I’m not White and Irish. I wasn’t athletic or a junkie. In fact, I probably would have been one of the kids the Carroll in the Diaries would have bullied. But that didn’t stop me from believing the book was speaking to me – that didn’t stop me from believing the book changed the way I felt about things – it was “a pivotal book” in my life.

Despite our differences, I felt that same isolation that the Carroll in the book felt. I’ve felt out of step with time – not too much but just enough that it makes hard to feel any real connections with the people around you. They’re there but you’re here slipping in and out of their field of vision – just a little more than a shadow caught momentarily in the corner of an eye.

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