Sunday, May 24, 2015

A letter to Gillian Murray in class 10D, year unknown:

Dear Gillian Murray,

Thanks for your copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. I don't know if you had anything to do with me ending up with it or whether it was outside of your control. The worst-case scenario is that someone took your book without your knowledge and it ended up for sale in a thrift store. The best-case scenario I can think of is that you got a newer, shinier edition and donated your old one. I certainly hope you didn't dismiss and dump it just because it was 'only a book I read in high school.' I hope you loved it.

I love it. I love it in all its incarnations. But I love this edition in particular, with its ugly yellow cover, bare of any embellishments save one single font listing the title, the author, and various accomplishments (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize/Over 11,000,000 copies sold) in two different sizes. I love its questionable capitalisation and the odd choice to break the word mockingbird in half, so that the cover looks like this:

To Kill a

Interesting choice, typesetters. I like you for it. You break rules badly, and somehow it works. But I'm not here to talk to you. I'm here to talk to Gillian Murray, of class 10D.

I know you were in 10D, Gillian, because you wrote it in the first page, in pencil, in elongated block writing. You also coloured in the gaps in the the Os, Bs, and D of the title. On the second page, a freer, messier hand has again scrawled (this time in pen), Gillian Murray 10D. I'm guessing that was your teacher. (She didn't need to do that. I much prefer your scribbles.)

I'm guessing, too, that she told you to annotate your book. To make notes so that when you came to write your paper or take your exam, you'd have sucked all the meaning and marrow from the text and be ready to discuss it at length. I'm also guessing that she (I'm making an assumption here that your teacher is a woman, probably because most of my teachers have been) didn't exactly teach you how to annotate, or which parts to draw meaning from. Because some of the things you made note of aren't very noteworthy.

On page 21 you've underlined just one word: Flick. What is it about that word that was significant for you? I'm intrigued. You also underlined the moment where Scout catches Dill out in a lie: first he says his dad had a black beard and then he says his father is clean-shaven. It's an interesting moment, sure, but why that moment, when so many others remain underline-free?

I like that you've hunted out definitions for words you weren't sure about. Next to vapid, you've pencilled in "empty." Next to malevolent, you've written "wicket, evil." Your brain must've switched the d in 'wicked' for a t somewhere between dictionary and book.

I also like that you've written little summaries for each chapter. At chapter one, you scrawled, "The children and Dill. Boo Radley. Background." At chapter two, you wrote, "School, Scout and Miss Caroline." (Obviously not an Oxford comma girl, and that's okay. I can appreciate our differences.) At chapter three, you wrote, "Scout, school Atticus and Scout reading."

Mostly, your little chapter summaries follow this predictable pattern. Then at chapter six you wrote only "Lost pants." This, in itself, is wonderful. But at chapter seven you scribbled, "Folded pants."

Lost pants.
Folded pants.

Those little annotations give me chills. You got it. You pinpointed an incredibly powerful moment in the book, a turning point in the story and a moment when the children -- Jem especially -- have their eyes opened (just beginning to be opened, really) to possibilities of humanness hidden where they originally saw only monsters and madness.

Entire theses could be written about those lost pants/folded pants. Short films made about them. Those pants say a lot. And you recognised that.

You nailed it, Gillian, and I'm so glad that, in a weird time-warpy sort of way, I get to read this book along with you.