Clichés may be the bane of good writing, but sometimes there’s no easier way to say I wish I had more time to read, than, well, I wish I had more time to read. I don’t even wonder where the time went, because I know. Social media has siphoned off whatever hours I have left at the end of the day that I used to devote to reading. I’ve been looking for a painless way to add that time back into my life, and the opportunity arose when I took a job an hour away.
Two hours of daily driving screams “audiobook,” so I was thrilled when I happened upon an Audible free trial of none other than Go Set a Watchman, which I’ve written about in a prior post on coming to terms with the truth about Atticus Finch. I’d mentioned I was hesitant to have my concept of this beloved character shattered with the revelation that he was, in fact, a racist. But I had to make a decision fast, so I signed up for the deal.
The first time I tried audiobooks was twelve years ago when I borrowed a friend’s CD of The Lovely Bones for a drive from New York City to Boston. Trust me when I tell you it’s not the kind of book you want to hear late at night on I-84.
Over the years, I’ve listened to various books on long trips, from Diana Gabaldon to Michael Moore, and I’ve often wondered if I’m getting the same experience, or if it’s more like reading-lite.
Reading a book the traditional way, your attention is focused on the page. An audiobook has to compete with other visual distractors. As an ADD-prone person, I find that if I’m listening to a story while driving down a highway, I’ll look off at the farmland and start thinking about the cows and the corn, and before I know it, five minutes of the recording has passed, words sucked into my chasm of distraction. Over the years I’ve found the audio format to be a good litmus test for how well a book is able to capture me.
I listened to the seven-hour Go Set a Watchman over the course of several days. The first thing I noticed was that the entire time I felt like I was listening to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. In the words of Stevie Nicks, the story seemed hauntingly familiar.
Harper Lee’s book was written contemporaneously nearly 60 years ago, while Stockett’s book, published in 2009, is penned from a historical perspective. The stories of educated young women faced with the hard facts of racism in the towns they grew up in are remarkably similar, and since neither author knew about the other’s story, neither can be said to be derivative.
Stories abound about whether Harper Lee, 89 and in frail health, had sanctioned the release of Watchman, and whether it was rushed into publication with minimal edits. While extraneous side stories about townspeople and church members lost my attention, what drew me back was the voice of the characters. And this is where audiobooks can really shine. I found Reese Witherspoon to be an ideal narrator. With a perfect Southern dialect, she seamlessly moves in and out of characters old and young, male and female. She has one scene with Atticus that had me wondering if there’s some sort of Academy Award for audiobook performances.
While it’s a satisfying read, Go Set a Watchman is a hard book to like. We can empathize with Jean Louise’s coming-of-age angst as she learns the truth about her father—he’s a flawed man, far from the God-like hero she’d revered. But I as a reader couldn’t concur with one of the book’s main conclusions: that he can still be admirable, despite the fact he’s a racist.
The book takes steps to soften this fact, though they are not altogether successful. Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack cloaks the town’s racial attitudes in a fear of governmental interference. Her longtime friend and suitor, Henry, explains away Atticus’s attendance at a Klan meeting as merely a reconnaissance mission. And Atticus’s statement that he defers to Jefferson’s views that citizenship is a privilege to be earned by each man, not to be given or taken lightly—all of these serve to try and mitigate the truth of what we’ve come to know about the real Atticus.
And here is where the delayed release of Watchman may be its downfall. The rationales put forth against civil rights legislation might have been easier to understand in the movement’s infancy back in 1957, but in 2015 they seem dated and unpalatable.
Nevertheless, the book has value as a historical piece, a window into the mores of the time as it happened. Watching the growth of Scout into Jean Louise, who appears as a kind of female everyman, speaking what the reader thinks, makes it worthwhile. And even if we can’t condone the views of Atticus, we can understand that Jean Louise loves him not because his views are reasonable, but because he’s her father. All in all, I’m glad I read the book, and I’m even more happy I listened to it.