The Books Briefing: How to Read a Classic Today

To Kill a Mockingbird’s legacy is far from the only one readers must reckon with: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Harper Lee
Donald Uhrbrock / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel was widely beloved, in part, for the character of Atticus Finch. As a lawyer defending a falsely accused Black man, Finch fit neatly into the narrative of a white savior enacting racial justice. Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, controversially published in 2015, revealed the depths of Finch’s racism and further unsettled the already-fraught hero worship of the character and the author.

To Kill a Mockingbird is far from the only classic whose legacy readers must grapple with. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books are marked by problematic depictions of Native and Black characters. The Hardy Boys series was revised after its publication to remove racist content. In the realm of science fiction and fantasy, H. P. Lovecraft’s xenophobic beliefs have repulsed many writers: In 2016, the World Fantasy Awards stopped using Lovecraft’s image for its trophies.

Books that revisit stories excluded from the literary canon can provide a kind of corrective. The Silence of the Girls, which reimagines The Iliad through the perspective of Briseis, a princess taken as a slave by Achilles, tells just one story that history overlooked. Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, which is based on interviews with the last living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade, tells another.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

A reader holds "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee


Go set a legacy: the fate of Harper Lee
“Atticus may be an even more interesting character in [Go Set a Watchman] than he was in [To Kill a Mockingbird]; he is, however, a distinctly less admirable one. And Lee, for her part, may still be the author who gave us the man who has been called one of the ‘all-time coolest heroes in pop culture’ and the ‘Best. Dad. Ever’ and ‘the greatest hero of American film’; she is also, however, the person who revealed that this great champion of racial justice was also a racist.”

📚 Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
📚 To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder during the 1950s (SCISETTI ALFIO / SHUTTERSTOCK / THE ATLANTIC)

Learning from Laura Ingalls Wilder
“The books indeed include several pejorative passages about Native people that reflect ‘dated cultural attitudes.’ At times, they also work to dispel myths about American westward expansion; some scenes illustrate the complexity of race relations on the frontier and remind readers that countless families like the Ingallses were illegally occupying Native lands.”

📚 The Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
📚 Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones
📚 The Night Wanderer, by Drew Hayden Taylor
📚 Little You, by Richard Van Camp
📚 Navajo ABC: A Dine Alphabet Book, by Luci Tapahonso

‘Political correctness’ won’t ruin H. P. Lovecraft’s legacy
“Lovecraft’s rise to fame happened largely after his death, but as he received more attention, so too did his racist and xenophobic beliefs.”

📚 The Call of Cthulhu, by H. P. Lovecraft
📚 A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar
📚 Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor
📚 Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville

A first-century fresco depicts Briseis (right) being led from the tent of Achilles (left)

A first-century fresco depicts Briseis (right) being led from the tent of Achilles (left). (NAPLES NATIONAL ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The silence of classical literature’s women
“The great trick of The Silence of the Girls is that it fills in the borders of one character in literature while uncovering the vast gaps that persist in the rest of the Western canon.”

📚 The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker
📚 The Iliad, by Homer
📚 Circe, by Madeline Miller
📚 The Odyssey, by Homer

A bust of Oluale "Cudjo" Kossola sits outside Union Missionary Baptist Church, the church he co-founded in Africatown, Alabama.

A bust of Oluale “Cudjo” Kossola sits outside Union Missionary Baptist Church, the church he co-founded in Africatown, Alabama. (AMY WALKER / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The power of untold slave narratives
“Stories of marooned spaces like Eatonville and Africatown have been largely erased from American memory, and nearly extinguished through institutional neglect. [Zora Neale] Hurston challenges the nation’s narrow view of the African continent, the transatlantic slave trade, and the diasporic cultures that came as a result of it. [Oluale] Kossola’s account grants readers a three-dimensional recollection of African American history—free of lionization or fantasy, a sobering lens through which to process a rich, varied legacy.”

📚 Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ by Zora Neale Hurston

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee.

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