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Writers, celebrities, civil rights activists and others recall the impact of 'Mockingbird'

In Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Mary McDonagh Murphy gathers memories and opinions of the book from more than two dozen people. Talking to Murphy, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, these writers, celebrities, civil rights activists and friends and family of author Harper Lee weigh in on the book and its lasting impact. Here are a few of their comments.

Oprah Winfrey, media mogul

". . . I remember reading this book and going to class and not being able to shut up about it. I read it in eighth or ninth grade, and I was trying to push the book off on other kids. So it makes sense to me that now I have a book club, because I have been doing that since probably this book. This was one of the first books I wanted to encourage other people to read."

Scott Turow, author of "Innocent" and other bestselling novels about lawyers

"(Atticus Finch) is a paragon beyond paragons. In latter years, my interest in him has been that he is emblematic of the way lawyers were represented up till probably the 1980s, when all of a sudden — it was the hangover of Watergate — people realized that lawyers are not paragons. Lawyers, in some cases, are greedy scum-sucking pigs, which is as one-sided and silly a picture as to imagine that they are all paragons. I am always at pains to point out that not only is Atticus this wonderful father, completely intuitive and caring, but he is even the best shot in the county."

Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and Pulitzer Prize winner for biography for "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House"

"We all like to think that Atticus Finch was our father or our grandfather. They weren't, or it would have been a much better South, a much better country. There wouldn't have been the need for the novel if everyone had been like Atticus."

Richard Russo, novelist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "Empire Falls"

"I look back on it now in the way in which you are becoming a writer and certain books influence you. It's hard to imagine Empire Falls being written without To Kill a Mockingbird, because I don't think Tick could have existed without Scout — something about that father/daughter relationship."

Lizzie Skurnick, author of "Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading," as well as novels for three young-adult series

"I thought Scout was a boy for a page and a half. I was a very fast reader, and I wasn't paying attention at some key part. I remember being thrilled when I realized it was a girl, but also very surprised, because I hadn't read a lot of novels with girl protagonists who weren't in hoop skirts and riding out West. . . . In many ways, her childhood is very lonely, and it's only her interest in other people that makes it a full childhood."

Anna Quindlen, novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist

"I don't really give a rip about Atticus. . . . I looked over the book again about three months ago. It's still always about Scout to me because there really aren't that many of those girls. There were hardly any of those girls in our real life, and there aren't that many of them in books. So you store them up as a hedge against the attempts of the world to make you into something else."

James McBride, screenwriter, novelist and author of the memoir "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother"

"I think the challenge that she laid out for us, the writers who follow in her wake, is to make sure that the various dimensions of these stories are told properly, and that we stand up in our own time to talk about issues that count now. It's easy to poke fun and say, 'I would have done this,' or 'What a brave woman she was,' and so on and so forth, but when it counted, Harper Lee did what was necessary."

Tom Brokaw, author and former NBC anchor

"I knew people like that, who were willing to stand up in these kinds of communities against the conventional wisdom of the time. Racism didn't stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. . . . But for Harper Lee to be there in the epicenter, if you will, of all this, to be so eloquent in how she described it. . . . She was in that pantheon, I think, of people who helped us get liberated from racism in this country."

Rick Bragg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of memoirs, including "All Over But the Shoutin' "

"And like a lot of people, I was told to read it. And like a lot of people, you start that way, with that kind of grudging, Let's get this done. And within paragraphs — you hear that over and over again, especially from young men that have been forced to read it, young men who grew up on the wrong side of the issue that dominates this book — they start reading it, and the next thing you know, it's not just held their interest, it's changed their views. That's pretty damn . . . that's almost impossible, but it happens."

Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

By Mary McDonagh Murphy; foreword by Wally Lamb

Harper, 215 pages, $24.99

Writers, celebrities, civil rights activists and others recall the impact of 'Mockingbird' 07/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 9, 2010 12:35pm]
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