Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is a follow-up to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the most hotly anticipated book of the year. It has received the most press, the most tweets, the most buzz. By now you would think it needs no introduction. And yet, I’ve embarked on this post to convince you why you need to listen to it.
To recap the controversy surrounding the novel: Harper Lee is, by some accounts, suffering from senility, and at the least is very old (89 last April). Her sister had been her lawyer, staunchly keeping away busybodies throughout the years (including industry professionals). Months after the death of Lee’s sister, the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was quickly found and sent to press.
The state of Alabama investigated the situation to see if Lee had been taken advantage of, and declared that everything was on the up and up. Publishing crisis averted.
So, we can all rest easy now. Or can we? My father-in-law lives at a memory care facility because he is afflicted with dementia. On a wall of the facility is a paper reminding non-residents that influencing patients on how to vote is illegal. When I first heard about the controversy, I thought about that piece of paper. I pictured Ms. Lee at a similar home in Alabama, signing, but not understanding, the contract in front of her.
It made me uneasy. But then I started to think about The Trial. Kafka requested that his friend and literary executor Max Brod burn his manuscripts upon his death. But Brod edited and published them instead—including The Trial. The literary world would be just a little bit darker without The Trial. It’s not just a great piece of literature. It’s a great piece of art.
Harper Lee is one of the most influential writers of our time. Her writing is poignant and handles issues of racism with the precision of a master architect. Yet it is appealing to a wide audience, communicating these wisdoms in plain words that are easy enough to digest.
From the few reviews that have thus far come in, this will not be an easy book. Scout, who now goes by Jean Louise, confronts her idealized notion of her father, Atticus. He is not the pure-hearted man we know from To Kill a Mockingbird. And as Scout grapples with this, so will we. There is no golden age of history that we can look back to. If I’m understanding it correctly, this book will force listeners to pick apart the complexities of history and human relationships.
And that is what art is for. Art cuts through the news clips and talking heads. Art makes us think. It makes us feel alive.
I have every faith that Go Set a Watchman will do that.
There are, of course, other reasons to listen to it. Reese Witherspoon is narrating. The Wall Street Journal published the first chapter last week and it gives every indication that this is just as beautifully rendered as To Kill a Mockingbird. And you’ll want to know what everyone else is talking about!
But for me, it comes down to art. The very best art is not just for the artist. It’s for the world.
Will you be reading or listening to Go Set a Watchman? Let us know in the comments.