"There is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.” Virginia Woolf in Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read
There are some books I have read so perpetually, that I can hardly perceive a change in the way I read them. There are some books, however, that are so spaced out that on each visitation the narratives bloom into a paradox of both new and old.
When I was a teenager, I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I was shocked by the events in the book. It cracked my perception of justice in America. It challenged my view of racial equality. I found the events with Boo Radley absolutely bizarre.
I read the book again when I began to teach, about ten years later. Revisiting it as a teacher, I closely read the pages for details. Lee’s gentle diction produced vivid pictures of Maycomb. Foils sharpened the meaning of the books: Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, Scout and Atticus, Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra. The legacy of the book weighed heavily on me. I wanted it to challenge my students the way it had challenged me at their age. I was anxious for them to the disparity between their framework and the view this book was presenting. It was imperative that they closely absorb the careful writing.
I read the book again this year, teaching it to my eighth grade class. As I prepared for classes, I would open the book to skim the familiar chapters and inevitably fill up my planning period by slowly reading the compelling pages. This book is so good! The indirect, Southern style circles around themes, disarming readers with its subtleties. Again and again we see how Atticus gives everyone dignity, from the recovering drug-addict, to his children, to Tom Robinson, to even Mayella Ewell. Again and again we see how society is warped in its norms. Threads of metaphors weave their flight through Finch’s Landing.
I was struck this spring by the unpretentious layers of this book, and how the space of ten a decade between my readings had given me room to grow and rest from its weight before diving back in. Recovering from overwork is important for so many reasons, but resting from a piece of art affords us the needed paradox of familiar and unfamiliar, new threads of meaning to connect the work to, and a rest ready for enjoyment.
When I think about Harper Lee writing this book, I can’t imagine that she produced something like this is a flash of insight. I’m convinced there were many, many flashes, but I think the steady pace layered with conversations with her publisher and with rest and revisitation carefully shaped this work.
Some works are not to be set down, some are meant to just be experienced once, and some need revisitation and rest. And perhaps, as Virginia Woolf suggests, reading should turn to writing: “Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words.”