Happy birthday, Atticus Finch

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the single most important book in my life.

I didn’t read a book until I was 20 years old. It’s true! They attempted to force-feed me while attending my below-average schools, but I made it clear that I would only read a book under protest and made every effort to not finish it. I usually succeeded.

Flash to age 20. I’m in the Coast Guard (no university for me, thanks!) and freshly arrived in New York City. I didn’t know a soul. I’d not felt so isolated and all alone before or since. At that time, New York was a dirty, overwhelming, scary mess. But I got sick of sitting around and starring at my shoelaces, so I decided to go exploring.

I took the R train from Whitehall up to Central Park. On the way, I passed a street peddler who was selling books. I gave birth to, what I imagined was, the most original and exciting idea ever conceived. I was going to sit in the park and read a book. I thought that voluntarily reading a book was a courageous act.

I looked over the books spread out on the sidewalk (I can still picture it to this day) and saw a tattered, worn paperback of To Kill a Mockingbird. I remembered that some of my friends in school had to read it, so I thought I’d give it a try. Plus, it was thin and that appealed to me.

I sat down on a Central Park bench, opened the book and began reading. I was a different man when I got up off that bench. It was a defining moment. That book sucked me in and I haven’t stopped reading since. It opened a door for me. I became a reader because of To Kill a Mockingbird. What a gift!

In 2005 I got the notion to write to Harper Lee and tell her how much her book meant to me. I wrote that, because of her book, I’m living a better and more interesting life than someone without a college degree could have expected to. I wrote that I’m a better father to my daughters and honestly don’t know what would have become of me if her book hadn’t introduced me to reading. I worked hard on the letter and was pleased with the results.

Harper Lee is a recluse who shuns publicity. All I knew was that she lived in Monroeville, Alabama, so I sent the letter to Harper Lee, c/o Monroeville, AL. I never expected it to arrive, much less be read by her, but I had to get that off my chest.

Just a few short days after I sent my letter, I received the following:


lee+11The fact that I moved Harper Lee to write such an elegant thank-you note is meaningful to me. The funny coda is that a few days after that, I received ANOTHER note from Ms. Lee. She couldn’t remember whether or not she sent a thank-you note.

“Forgive me if this is a repeat letter; I’m old, my eyesight is failing and I’m FORGETFUL. I may have forgot that I replied to you, but I know one thing: I’ll never forget your letter. In 45 years of receiving fan mail, I never had a letter mean so much to me. Thank you for it.”

Happy birthday, Atticus. Thanks for saving me from a boring life.

131 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Atticus Finch

  1. Pingback: The Belly of the Beast « HACKER. NINJA. HOOKER. SPY.

  2. Oh my. I got here via your guest post with Aussa. As much as I love To Kill a Mockingbird, this story of your connection makes me feel that life is good. That people are good. That people can remain people even amidst fame and notoriety. What a gift for both you and Harper Lee.

    • I recently reread that book. I was terrified that I had built it up into something that couldn’t possibly exist but do you know what? It was just as powerful as I remember it being. Such perfect writing. It’s no wonder I was seduced.

  3. I’ve walked through Central Park just once in my life – it’s a very long way from home for me – and I sat for a moment or two on one of those park benches and I thought how perfect they would be for reading. And I wondered what real New Yorkers (real being anyone who lives in the city as opposed to a tourist like me) might read there. Now I know. And it’s better than anything I could have dreamed!

    • I still read on those same benches! All these years later and I’m happy to report that I haven’t lost my appreciation for how fortunate I am to have a Central Park bench be a part of my life. How did that happen? How did I get so lucky? I’m just regular!

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  5. So cool Mark. Believe it or not, I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird. Your story has intrigued me and I’ll pick up a copy from the library. Thanks for the post and the chance to see that even famous people are like the rest of us.

    • Thanks, Paul. I suppose this is kind of stating the obvious but To Kill a Mockingbird is a really good book. It’s worth your time and money. It might not knock you flat on your ass the same way it did me, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Definitely pick it up.

  6. Pingback: On Books, Comics, and Sibling Rivalry « Jill's Scene

  7. I heard she just allowed it to be released electronically. She said she really loves dusty old books with real pages but wanted to give the “new kids” access on their various devices. I am a book kinda gal too, but kudos to her! Don’t you kinda feel like royalty? I mean she made contact with you TWICE! You Sir, are incredible. Thank you for sharing. (this trip was also via Aussa)

    • I just read that this morning in the paper! And there’s going to be an audio book that Sissy Spacek is going to read. I don’t feel so special, really. I’m damn glad the whole thing happened. Otherwise, I’d probably be back in Ohio digging ditches, instead of New York digging ditches.

      • You don’t feel special?? What?? The bloggess once replied to a comment I left there and I felt like I had just been knighted by the queen!!

  8. Wow! Thank you for sharing this uplifting story.
    I once wrote a letter to John Graves (a noted Texan writer and probably my favorite and most loved). To my surprise, he answered my letter straight-away. One of the happier days of my life.

    Thanks again.

    • I recently took my 12-year old daughter to see a Broadway play starring Daniel Radcliffe. She’s obsessed with the Potter movies; I wanted her to see the work of my favorite contemporary Irish playwright. Win-win! She was able to get Radcliffe to sign her Playbill. I think it was the happiest moment in her young life. What is it with celebrity that makes us all go nuts?

      • Not sure, but I am often star-stuck. Once, while floating about in the Indian Ocean in ’86, I wrote a letter to Joni Mitchell. Sadly, she did not answer. It was such a ‘wonderful fawning letter’ I just had to tell myself she never received it.

  9. Isn’t it wonderful to receive such a letter? The thing is, you had to write one first. That took time, effort and thoughtfulness. And you made a difference–as did Ms. Lee with her response. You have each uplifted the human race. Well done.
    BTW: Thanks for visiting AHintOfLight

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