Rick Bragg: This Book Changed My Life
My first copy was dog-eared and sunbaked, the pages brittle and brown, as if the paperback had rested in the back window of an old Pontiac instead of on a library shelf. Some kind of pestilence—water bugs, I believe—had gotten to it before I did, and it was hard to tell, as I turned to that first page, which of us would get more from it. I was an ignorant teenage schoolboy and read it because a teacher told me to, prodded as if by pitchfork down the hot, dull streets of a town called Maycomb in the desolate 1930s, and pressed into the company of a boy named Jem, a mouthy girl named Scout, and an odd little chucklehead named Dill whom, I am fairly sure, I would have beaten up and relieved of his milk money. I would have preferred the Hardy Boys, preferred to gallop alongside the Riders of the Purple Sage, but I was afraid of teachers then, and so I read. “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town … Somehow, it was hotter then … There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go …” I missed a few words, bug-eaten or besmirched, but I read on, to a shot-down rabid dog, and a neighbor, Boo Radley, in hiding, and a young black man named Tom Robinson who is wrongly accused of raping a young white woman. And, of course, there is Atticus Finch, the lawyer who offers reason, and kindness, and some thin hope. He tries to save Robinson, but, as the pages turned, I saw that it would take more than one good Alabama man to make this sorry world all right.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, but it was the middle 1970s before it reached the Roy Webb Road in Calhoun County, Alabama, and me. I began reading Harper Lee’s novel in the skimpy shade of a pine outside my grandmother’s house, fat beagles pressing against me, begging for attention, ignored. At dark, I kept reading, first on the couch, a bologna sandwich in one hand, then in my bed, by the light of a 60-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling on an orange drop cord. When my mother came in from her job as a maid and unplugged my chandelier, I replayed the story in my head until it was crowded out by dreams. I woke the next morning, smelling biscuits, and reached for the book again.
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