OK, OK, I’m sure some of you are upset. If you’ve been reading all the press about Harper Lee’s just-published novel, Go Set a Watchman, then you probably know that it’s already sparked a lot of controversy already and hardly anyone has read it. While it’s upsetting to think that Atticus may end up a tarnished angel — but he’s a big strong guy and I feel sure he’ll survive it all.
But here’s the good news: A book is big news! Lots of ink is being spilled about it. People are weighing in about its relative merits in essays, book reviews, on NPR — you name it. Watchman even rated not one, but two front-page articles in The New York Times. In fact, I just hopped into the city with a friend to hear a brief reading at the 92nd Street Y and the place was packed.
It’s exciting to see people this excited about a novel! Just think about the new life that all this hoopla will breathe into To Kill a Mockingbird — millions of people who’ve never read this classic novel may pick it up and be entranced by its story and lyricism. How wonderful that would be!
It’s quaint and even hard to believe that books were once one of people’s primary forms of entertainment. In this bygone era, the publication of a new book by a beloved author was a huge event. I remember reading that when copies of the new chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens arrived in New York from England by boat, even the dockworkers wanted to know how the story ended and whether little Nell, the heroine, survived.
Our modern counterpart is probably the publication of the Harry Potter books, which became massive global events, spawning pajama parties and book fests — and giving several generations of kids a celebratory feeling about books that they will surely cherish well into their adulthood.
So to my mind, whether Go Set a Watchman lands on the bestseller list for months and months or falls by the wayside doesn’t really matters. What makes me hopeful is that a book — not a movie or a video game or a TV series — is making big news. This is a hopeful sign of the power that books and authors can still wield even in today’s world of smart phones, Apple watches, apps, and tweets. To think of a writer sparking all this intellectual energy is exciting. Surely, that’s one of the roles of storytellers. Write on!