I’ll never forget where I was when I discovered that Harper Lee is going to publish another book - the one that’s been hidden away in a drawer for more than fifty years. I was sitting in a café and scrolling through Twitter and there it was. ‘Harper Lee to Publish Second Novel.’
My coffee went cold.
This is a big thing.
I knew Lee had a second book hidden away; I knew she wasn’t happy with it and I never expected to read anything by her ever again. But now I shall. And I can’t tell you how exciting that thought is. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was at school. I quite liked it. But to be brutal, the supply teacher killed it. Our regular teacher was off having a baby – there’s no way she would’ve wrecked it – and this other stand-in teacher kept stopping every two seconds to say stuff like, ‘Hands up if you know what a sidewalk is.’ What with all the stopping and starting, the book went on forever - and there were soooo many different characters...
But some years later, I came back to that book because I was now teaching it myself. And this time I saw it in a whole different light and loved every word and every character. Of course, I knew I had a responsibility and I tried my best not to ruin it for any of my students. I hope I didn’t! I certainly didn’t keep doing quick hand-polls to check that my top set students had correctly decoded the word ‘sidewalk’. I’m pretty sure my enthusiasm was clear. I know for sure I did a fairly decent job of recreating a barkingly-mad Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose complete with nasal southern drawl because when the class and I sat down together to watch the classic black and white film, one of the kids – she was called Gemma and memorably funny – looked at me and sighed and said, ‘I prefer your version of Mrs Dubose to this one. She ain’t doing it right.’
But it wasn’t hard to make TKAM sound good. The characters are fantastically three-dimensional and believable and almost every sentence of that book is a quote you want to keep. Nuggets of wisdom like this from Judge Taylor:
‘People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.’
And from Calpurnia:
‘There's some folks who don't eat like us," she whispered fiercely, "but you ain't called on to contradict 'em at the table when they don't. That boy's yo' comp'ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?’
And, of course, that most famous of lines from Atticus:
‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’
It’s a book which makes very perceptive observations and, in spite of its brutal realism, it still manages to radiate an extraordinary warmth.
So YES I’m excited about this ‘new’ book.
But already the doubts are circulating on the internet. Why is this book being released? Has an elderly woman been duped into an agreement she doesn’t understand? How is it that this ‘lost’ manuscript has only now been found? And by her lawyer?
I sincerely hope there’s nothing shady in it. The part of my brain which deals with criminal logic tells me that a douchebag wouldn’t risk this sort of fuss. Why hoodwink Harper Lee into signing something which will then play out before her own eyes? The truth is that she’s a very old lady. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to get her signature where it matters and then just... well, wait?
Harper Lee says she is ‘humbled’ and pleased and so am I. This book cannot damage her reputation. No sensible person can really be expecting it to be as perfect as TKAM. It is, after all, the book Lee put aside in order to write TKAM. And no sensible person is ever going to read Go Set a Watchman and think, ‘Oh, that was rubbish – so is Harper Lee.’ Anyone who loved TKAM will still love it and still respect its author. And is a second book really going to put pressure on this quiet, publicity-shy woman who is nearing ninety? Will she be expected to write another? I don’t think so. Nobody expected this one. And let’s not forget, it was written more than fifty years ago.
Whatever the motives behind this announcement, it’s a gift - a gift to readers and a gift to the publishing world. Not many writers can create the sort of buzz that warrants an initial print run of two million copies. And yes, it’s out on e-book too. But e-book shmee-book. I think most of us would rather have the object, thank you very much. It’s Harper Lee! Do we really want to read her as a digital file? The truth is that a very old woman is passing on an enormous cash-gift to the book industry. And that won’t just benefit publishers, it will benefit editors and authors and booksellers and anyone who relies on the basic idea that good words should be paid for.
So thank you Harper Lee - for letting me read about Scout as a grown-up and for giving a big big bonus to those who want to live in a world with bookshops still in it.
P.S The TKAM in the picture is Grand Central Publishing edition which wears a lovely cover designed by Inkymole – aka Sarah Jane Coleman. I know her because she designed the original Lottie Biggs covers too and once pointed out Gary Linekar’s dad’s fruit and veg stall on Leicester market to me. I KNOW SHE’D VERY MUCH LIKE TO DESIGN THE COVER OF GO SET A WATCHMAN. Just saying.