Why I Won’t Read “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

Why I Won’t Read “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee July 28, 2015

Why I Won’t Read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I recently read a commentary by a newspaper editor suggesting that both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman be chosen as “books of the year” for an annual city-wide reading project. (Each year the city chooses one book and encourages people to read it and meet to discuss it.) I was dismayed by the suggestion. And I had already decided not to read Go Set a Watchman. I personally wish it had not been published.

I am not advocating censorship; I am only explaining why I, personally, do not plan to read this particular book. Of course, I support others who wish to join me in doing the same.

Some critics will argue that I must read the book before panning it. I disagree. I have read enough reviews of Go Set a Watchman to know that I don’t want to read it and wish it had not been published. I don’t have to read Mein Kampf to know I don’t want to read it and wish it had not been published. (I’m not comparing Go Set a Watchman with Mein Kampf! I’m only explaining why one does not have to read a book to know enough about it to have good reason not to read it and wish it had not been published.)

So, with all those qualifications and explanations (to fend off predictable objections!)—on to my reasons for not reading Go Set a Watchman and encouraging others to avoid it as well.

For anyone not familiar with it, Go Set a Watchman was written by Harper Lee, the author of the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird, before the latter was published. Her publisher rejected the book and it was set aside and forgotten. Now, with Lee elderly and ailing, the sequel to Mockingbird, written first, is published to great public excitement and acclaim.

The problem is that, according to all the reviews I’ve read, Atticus Finch, one of four main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, the lawyer father of “Scout,” the focal character, turns out in older age to be a racist-segregationist. In Mockingbird, the book, and also in the Broadway play and movie based on it, Finch was portrayed as anti-racist, an advocate for blacks in the segregated South, and a kind and gentle man who was, at the same time, a real “man’s man.” He was also a single father, raising two children, with love and care. And he was a public man who stood courageously for right in a society riddled with injustice.

The Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird was a real male hero; a model of a man’s man who was kind, compassionate, just and courageous. In other words, over the years, the character became a symbol of a truly good man in difficult circumstances.

I want to remember Atticus Finch that way; not as a racist-segregationist. And I am dismayed that his “memory,” his reputation, is being sullied in Go Set a Watchman (according to all the reviews I have read).

Imagine the uproar if a book were to be found and published about an iconic female character who, in public consciousness, because of how she was portrayed in a previous book, stood for women’s freedom and equality. Imagine that in the later-published book she was portrayed as weak and dependent, a flirt who depended on men for her self-esteem. Even if the book was written by the same author, it would without doubt be criticized harshly.

I will continue to cherish the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird and not even risk tarnishing him as a model by reading Go Set a Watchman. And I encourage others to do the same. Of all the books I was required to read in school, To Kill a Mockingbird probably had the greatest impact on my consciousness including especially racial attitudes and attitudes towards men and what it means to be a truly good man. I cannot remember a single other book that I was required to read in school with a similar male character. All others, that I recall, were deeply flawed in some respect, not really good models for a boy to emulate as he grew into manhood and fatherhood and became a just citizen in an unjust society.

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