How Harper Lee Saved Me

Several people have pinged me about the announcement of Harper Lee’s new novel. It’s based on a recently-discovered manuscript that she wrote in mid-50’s and takes place 20 years after To Kill A Mockingbird.

I think just about everyone has already read and commented on this post but I thought I’d rerun it. It’s the reason why people are reaching out to me with this wonderful news. It explains who I am and why I’m typing these words right now. I’d be a hot mess if it weren’t for her.

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 staring 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 them 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 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.

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:

lee1lee2The 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.

326 thoughts on “How Harper Lee Saved Me

  1. Thank you for sharing. I too read this book when I was well into my thirties and I still wonder why I did not read it earlier. It is a beautiful book and I have re- read it so many times>

  2. Love this!!! I had to read this book in 9th grade, and I was an avid reader. And still that book lit a fire in me. I read it again when my daughter read it in 8th grade and cannot wait for her new book. Just seeing her handwriting in her note to you was thrilling! Thank you for sharing this again, I missed it the first time around. I’m so glad for you and your daughters that you took that walk. I read your post to my 15 year old given that she also loves the book. Her reply was, “See, that’s why I need to live in New York, so I can read a book in Central Park!”. Happy day to you, good sir.

  3. I am in awe of your discovering Harper Lee, so happy you wrote a letter and even better, receiving one back. I have a few photographs of famous people with their printed signature, I have them all framed. Once upon a time, I treasuered “To Kill a Mockingbird” book, but gave it along with most of the stuff away. It is due to moving from a house with an attic and basement and 3 bedrooms to a one bedroom apt. I will read the new book, I admire women authors, ones who chose to be a little sneaky to get their books published. Isak Dinesen wrote the great book, “Out of Africa.” some people thought this was written by a male author, too. I have mentioned to a lot of people that Harper is a woman not many knew this detail throughout my life.

  4. I find this a very touching story. I always loved Harper lee’s novel it brings back the childhood innocence we all want to rekindle as well as the life lessons it conveys. I can not wait to read the sequel as well.

  5. Amazing!!! I used to teach “To Kill a Mockingbird” to high school freshman and it was such an inspiration to watch my students gasp at the hidden heroism of Boo Radley. I miss teaching it so much, as it is no longer a part of my curriculum (I now teach younger students), but it remains my favorite novel. I am so impressed by your story!

  6. Reblogged this on Sue Russell Writes and commented:
    Writers Affecting Readers, Readers Affecting Writers…
    I was warmed this morning by a couple of notes from readers. Believe me, folks, we really cherish such missives. Hours later, this post about a blogger’s powerful exchange with Harper Lee crossed my line of vision. So, it is also true for the greats, I thought. And sometimes, as here, it becomes a pretty wonderful two-way street.

  7. Great story! I can’t believe she wrote you back. You are blessed to have received such an incredible thank you (twice!). I can’t wait to read the new book either. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Reblogged this on Her Big Mouth and commented:
    This is the most moving post I’ve read in a long time. It puts Harper Lee in the good light that she deserves for writing such a powerful and influential first novel.

  9. Thankyou so much for sharing this! An incredible and a truly inspiring story!
    I have just started my blog, would love it if you checked it out, one day perhaps I’ll be able to write something as inspirational as this is! 🙂

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