Rob Burgess

Editor’s note: With the July 14 release of “Go Set a Watchman,” the much-anticipated second novel from Harper Lee, I decided to re-read what had been her only other novel, the beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird.” This column is the first in a two-part series exploring each.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of those books that practically every literate American has read. (Or, at least, has pretended to have read.) It would almost be easier if every new Facebook profile came with this title pre-loaded in the Favorite Books section rather than waiting for it to be filled in.

Since its release in 1960, it has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into 40-plus languages, according to publisher HarperCollins.

“In a ‘Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits’ conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1991, researchers found [it] ranked second only to the Bible ‘as making a difference in people’s lives,’” wrote Charles J. Shields in “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.”

Children are keen to hear the book’s message of empathy because it rewards their age instead of viewing it as a strike against them. The book’s two plots are given equal space and consideration, even when the adults in the story might see one as being far more important than the other.

The first involves main character Scout, her brother Jem and neighbor Dill (who is based on Harper Lee’s actual childhood friend, Truman Capote) and their efforts to draw out a local shut-in, Arthur “Boo” Radley. The second centers on attorney Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem’s father, who has been appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. The payoff comes at the end when these two stories intersect.

It’s easy to see why this book is assigned in schools so frequently. The text is practically dripping with a thick syrup of timeless wisdom, as Lee places quotable passages into the mouths of her characters on seemingly every other page. Here are but 10 of my favorite examples:

• “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus

• “There are just some kind of men … who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” — Miss Maudie Atkinson

• “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.” — Scout

• “When stalking one’s prey, it is best to take one’s time. Say nothing, and sure as eggs he will become curious and emerge.” — Scout

• “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” — Atticus

• “[Courage is] when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes, you do.” — Atticus

• “It’s not necessary to tell all you know. … Folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.” — Calpernia

• “Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in.” — Scout

• “Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to.” — Scout

• “Atticus sometimes said that one way to tell whether a witness was lying or telling the truth was to listen rather than watch.” — Scout

I read this book in high school and I wanted to revisit it one last time before I set about tackling Lee’s newest work. From what I’ve heard, some very troubling details have surfaced regarding both the fictional characters and real-life players in this story and I wanted one last look before my view of this modern classic was changed forever. More on that next week.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at or on Twitter at

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