What if I told you that To Kill A Mockingbird is overrated? “Can you, uh…can you read and write?” Wait, Atticus, let me explain, let me explain. What I’m saying is it’s weird how this book is so, so famous. Let me tell you a story. I read this book for fun in fourth grade. I lived in Tennessee, thought it was amazing, even though I probably didn’t understand it.
Moved. Read it in sixth grade class. Moved. Read it ninth grade. Moved. Read it again. By the end of school, I had read this book six times. Six times. I personally never read any of these books for school. So was To Kill A Mockingbird really 600% better than all of these other books? I think there’s a surprising reason it’s so famous. Beyond Atticus Finch being great. “I don’t care what the reasons are.” Please. Give me a chance. To understand why this book was a school staple, you need to understand other books. Like the illicit love in The Hangman’s Whip. When Harper Lee got To Kill A Mockingbird published in 1960, she never expected it to be a massive hit. As she said in her only radio interview: “My reaction to it was not one of surprise, it was one of sheer numbness.” It got a good review in the New York Times (though it earned less coverage than “Ceremony in Lone Tree” by Wright Morris).
But let’s be clear: it sold millions of copies in hardback. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961. The hit movie came out in 1962. Here’s Gregory Peck, AKA Atticus, and Harper Lee, posing as… well, I don’t know why they’re posing like that, but I like it. The movie poster had a big picture of the book on it. So this book was a big critical and popular hit. But it didn’t win all of the awards. And it wasn’t the best selling book of the year.
So what took it from hit to legend? The most important thing to notice about that 1961 Pulitzer Prize isn’t the prize. It’s the year. You probably recognize this logo. It’s from Penguin Books, and it’s familiar because the company has been around, with pretty much the same waddling logo, since 1935. When Allen Lane founded the UK company, paperback books were revolutionary. The idea was to print good books, in paperback, so they’d be cheaper than hardbacks. That revolution quickly spread to America with Pocket Books and other competitors. But it wasn’t just about cheap paper and tiny, mass market size books. Distribution was key. Suddenly, cheap books flooded dime stores, newsstands, and gas stations. Crime writers like Mickey Spillane became huge stars. Just look at this guy. He’s an author. The books started out seedy. Popular Library published stuff like Silence in Court! and Devil Take Her. But respectable stuff trickled in too, occasionally with sexy covers, like this shirtless Great Gatsby.
*whistle* Paperbacks became mainstream quickly. By 1961, the New York Times was calling it “The Paperback Revolution.” They said paperbacks weren’t just for “sex, sadism and the smoking gun.” The books were actually being used…in schools. That’s where To Kill A Mockingbird comes in. Remember that book, The Hangman’s Whip? Popular Library published that, and in 1962 they also put out the mass market paperback for To Kill A Mockingbird.
Paperbacks were finally coming into their own. And To Kill A Mockingbird had perfect timing. Teachers had a cheap, popular, respectable book. And throughout the 60s, paperback publishers thought of education as El Dorado. El Dorado’s a mythical city of gold, in case you forgot. Margins on mass-market paperbacks were small, so publishers made money by selling huge numbers. Paperbacks sold a lot of copies worldwide. 5 million. 11 million. And on and on and on. That’s why To Kill A Mockingbird is so famous. And you get the sense Harper knew it, too. When Lee died, her estate almost immediately said they would discontinue the mass market version of the book.
Even if you think the paperback revolution made the book overrated, it’s still kind of sad. These books, these cheap paperback, kinda hard to read mass-market books — they’re worth more than their price. Maybe they shouldn’t be killed. “Mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncribs. They don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.” This video is actually the first in a series we’re doing about Overrated icons. You can look down below for our Facebook page where we have more videos and articles and all sorts of other stuff about things that might be just a little overrated..