Why you should buy this month's Smithsonian -- Harper Lee

Hard to believe that that enduring American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published 50 years ago. It’s a staple of high school lit classes. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been called in to sub for an English teacher who’s sick of having to teach the book one more time. No, the truth is they’re always out with the flu. That’s what they say, but I tell their students they are out playing golf and to be sure to ask for their scores when they return.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a grand and complex story, and when you can back the book up with excepts from the Gregory Peck movie, the teaching has even a greater impact.

And I get to tell the story of author Harper Lee, that she only wrote one book and this is it; that, yes, she started two others, but she never completed them – and maybe it’s just as well because how could Lee have topped To Kill a Mockingbird; that she doesn’t talk to reporters and hasn’t since 1961.

Yes, Lee is alive and well at age 84, and still living in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama – the model for Maycomb, the fictional community in which she set To Kill a Mockingbird – that she still walks to the Piggly Wiggly where she does her own grocery shopping.

Now I don’t know whether Lee walks or drives, but several stories I’ve read do have her doing all the things you and I do in our towns, including drinking coffee at Hardee’s and buying groceries.

Smithsonian Magazine gave writer Charles Leerhsen the assignment to do a story about Lee, her book, and the book’s 50th anniversary. It’s in the current issue, and you should read it – a delightful story that he wrote without interviewing Lee because he knew she wouldn’t give him an appointment.

HarperCollins, which now has the publishing rights for Lee’s book – Lippincott was the original publisher, but that company’s out of business – has brought out a 50th anniversary edition, and its executives expect the book to sell a million copies this year. If you buy one, I know you’ll want Harper Lee’s autograph on the fly leaf.

She won’t sign your book. She won’t sign mine, so I’ve been practicing her signature. Just mail your copy to me, and I’ll sign it for Lee.

I’ll even personally inscribe it to you.

Tomorrow: Meet William Shakespeare’s imposter

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