'Mockingbird' turns 50

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of "To Kill A Mockingbird." Harper Lee's first and only novel was published in July 1960 and remains a touchstone in American literary and social history. It is a novel that millions of us have in common, often one of the first adult novels we remember reading. The much loved, Pulitzer Prize-winning work has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and was voted one of the best novels of the 20th century by librarians across the nation.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a tale of coming of age in a Depression-era South poisoned with racial prejudice. The book shows a world of both innocence and injustice through the eyes of a young white girl whose father, a fair-minded lawyer, risks everything to defend a black man accused of rape. That's a thumbnail plot summary, but the book is so much more. If you haven't read it, go to the library or bookstore and grab a copy today.

The Ashland library recently put "To Kill A Mockingbird" on display to commemorate the birthday of what some consider to be America's national novel. The library has copies of the book both in print and on CD, as well as DVDs of the award-winning 1962 movie version starring Gregory Peck. The library will show the film at 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 28.

By a happy coincidence, Bloomsbury Books already had a display in connection with both the book and Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2011 production of "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Bloomsbury store manager Anita Isser said she has fond recollections of the book.

"I read it as a young girl, and I do love the book so much. It is one of the loveliest and most meaningful books I have ever read," she said.

Ashland Library Director Amy Blossom said she recently re-read the novel. "I think it is an absolutely wonderful book. A lot of libraries have used it as part of their Community Reads program. It's one of those classics that is still relevant," she said.

Nationally, the anniversary is being marked with Harper Collins' release of a hardcover 50th anniversary edition of the book, as well as the recent publication of "Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'" by Mary McDonagh Murphy, a companion volume to her documentary film on the same subject.

The book and film review the history of Lee's novel and explore its impact on the nation. Murphy interviews a wide range of journalists, historians, artists and novelists who reflect on how the book influenced them. Interviews include Anna Quindlen, Tom Brokaw, Scott Turow, Rosanne Cash, Oprah Winfrey and Wally Lamb. She also taps friends and relatives of Harper Lee to piece together how the novel and the acclaimed movie came to be. Of course, the one absent voice is the reclusive Harper Lee, who has not given an interview since 1964.

In spite of, or maybe because of, the wild commercial and literary success of her first book, Lee did not publish another one. Unlike her close friend Truman Capote, she chose to avoid the public eye and once referred to herself as Boo Radley, the reclusive character that captures the imagination of young Scout and her brother, Jem. She lives quietly in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., having refused even Oprah Winfrey, who shares the story in "Scout, Atticus and Boo." Lee's silence and avoidance of the media in the face of such fame only adds to the allure of her book.

I last read "To Kill a Mockingbird" shortly before my children were born. With each reading, first as a teenager, again after college, and most recently in my 30s, I discovered something new. I'm eager to read it again from the perspective of a parent. Part of what makes the book so special is that it means something different to everyone who reads it. That meaning can change as we readers, like Scout, grow in awareness and come to new understandings of our community, our families and ourselves.

Angela Howe-Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com.

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