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. This is so beautiful! Firstly Lee is adorable – she is such a genius and it’s amazing how To Kill a Mockingbird got you into reading – it’s probably the only book I’ve read more than three times without having a clue as to why I keep on crying by the time I get to the end!

    Go Set a Watchman will be a brilliant novel, I have no doubt about that.

    • I am very cautious about Go Set a Watchman. I don’t think ANYBODY is expecting something on the level of Mockingbird. There’s even a real chance it might not be that good. Remember, her original editor told her to get away from that story and flesh out the back story. That back story became Mockingbird. Fingers crossed, okay?

  2. I must rather sheepishly say that I haven’t read it! I will rectify this state of affairs immediately. One of my daughters has a copy so I will borrow it forthwith. I’m very curious to read a book that had such an effect.

    • How is that possible? Aren’t you an academic? How did you avoid reading it all these years? While I encourage you to read it, I would caution you to temper your enthusiasm a bit. It might not be everything it’s cracked up to be. High expectations can kill what is a really beautiful story.

      • I know, it’s a terrible omission. I never go into books with any expectations at all. 99% of literary England went into a swoon over Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” last year. I found it tedious and unreadable and just didn’t care at all about the fate of the characters or what was going on. We all bring ourselves to books. My main motivation for TKAM is to read for myself the text that influenced *you* in such a powerful way.

      • I have tickets to a play this spring based on the two Mantel books about Henry VIII. The play is four and a half hours long with a dinner break. It sounds like it’d be elegant torture for you but I CAN’T WAIT.

  3. Reblogged this on Mavis's musing and commented:
    To Kill a Mocking Bird was my literature text in secondary school. My classmates from Cedar Girls Secondary School will remember it.

    It’s nice to read that Harper Lee replied to fan mails, as I always write to authors, producers, to thank them for their awesome content. It’s hard to get a reply, though it’s become easier with social media. Communications is now made easier, more convenient therefore more likely for a reply.

    Looking forward to Harper Lee’s new novel!

    • Thank you for the reblog! Much obliged. Glad you liked it.

      There’s an old world charm to receiving a hand-written note. I think it’s a beautiful gesture that is soon to die out. Yet another thing that social media murdered along with discretion and privacy. R.I.P. hand-written correspondence.

      • Social media can help to improve communications, break barriers for people who are less open to speaking up. Without for social media, you and I wouldn’t be speaking to each other now. :p

  4. Wow! I’m not going to tell anyone my age, but I’m well past college age and certainly, if Uncle Sam wanted me for any of his services, I think, I’d still be looking at shoelaces! I just found this book at a used book sale and knew it was well read, so I wanted to know what all the chatter was about this Harper lady! Then to my great surprise and thrill a sequel was found that she wrote and I hope to read it soon. My hope is it may change my life! Thank you for sharing.

    • So you found a used copy but you haven’t read it yet? Did I get that right? Well, I can’t guarantee it’ll have the same impact for you as it did for me, but it’s a hell of a ride. I can assure you of that. Millions of people going back to 1960 can’t be wrong.

  5. Hi, I found you via Trent Lewin. Because of you I have ordered a tatty copy to add to my bookshelf when done reading. You are also fortunate she wrote two letters. How amazing is that?

    • Trent Lewin is of a fine vintage. That guy knows how to play this game. He only posts when he has something to say and it’s always worth reading.

      I am damn lucky to have had her attention. Even if it was just for a moment. I wonder if she was serious about putting the letter in an archive? I may never know.

  6. Pingback: How Harper Lee Saved Me | Historical Fiction Addicts

  7. Wow! That’s amazing. I love reading and I’m glad books have moved you in a positive way. I’m also glad that Harper Lee herself wrote you back! You deserve it! 😀

  8. and i want to thank you for your article as you explain my sitiuation i am 24 years old dentist and i do not love reading at all but now there is difference that i realize that reading is my life and my next plan is to be a writer thank you

  9. You know, I find it really interesting that so many people haven’t read this book… I almost envy them, getting to experience it for the first time. Like others here, I think I’m inspired to read it again, if only to prepare for the sequel. I wonder if my 8-year-old would read it? I’m thinking so. Wouldn’t that be a thing, if this were the first ‘real’ book we read together.

    Great to see all the attention here, Mark. Love some of the reactions – I think most people felt the same way I did.

    • I thought reading it at 20 was to my tremendous advantage. What can a high school kid glean from this? Imagine reading it when you’re twice that age. I think it may be a bit intense for an 8-year old. Are you ready to explain the n-word?

  10. I rarely check out Freshly–sick envy, likely–but so glad I did today, and found your repost. You marvelously twice-fortunate man: To have that experience, thanks to your own thoughtfulness, and Ms. Lee’s, and the experience of having a book like THAT draw you into the reading fold.
    Thank you for reposting, for a well-written story, and for being a thoughtful person.

    (Well, at least that one time. You may be mean as spit the rest of the time.)

    • I love the sick/envy observation. Because that’s me, too. It’s liberating to admit it and say it out loud. I waited and wanted it for years and now that it’s finally here, it’s almost anticlimactic. This post has already been buried by several posts on top of it. Thanks for your kind words about my story. I should send you $1.

  11. Yay you! FP’d and all. I saw that you were and wanted to pop over and say congrats again.

    Of course if you pay attention to stats it will drive you nuts.

  12. Pingback: How Harper Lee Saved Me | thisginger'sgotGrace

  13. Thank you for sharing. To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent book and was one of my favorites in school. I look forward to the sequel. Thank you for telling your story. It is so nice she wrote to you too. You are very lucky!

    • Thanks for your comments and the reblog. Obviously, I’ll read the next book but I’m cautious. There’s no way it could live up to Mockingbird. I think we all need to adjust our expectations. Remember…this book was rejected by her editor. He might have had a good reason to do so!

  14. That is amazing! To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all time favorite books. I can understand how it could change your life. What a treasure you have in that letter. Thank you so much for sharing this again.

    • Thanks for the comment, Sandy. That book hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve often wondered what I’d be doing today if I’d never read it. I usually wonder that while rereading her note to me, which I like to do periodically. It’s a nice memory.

  15. Breath-taking and heart-warming! Ms Lee’s book also affected me on so many levels. Hers was not my 1st book, but it was and is the best. What a treasure you have, a handwritten response from someone who changed your life! Wow!

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