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The Latest Bestseller

Even if you don’t teach English, like I do, you’ll no doubt be aware of the endless lamentations about the “death of reading” or the “decline of the humanities” or the “dumbing down of America.” Clearly (and without pointing any obvious fingers, particularly in an election season), I can’t deny that there is compelling evidence to support all of these positions.

And yet.

Arguably, the summer’s biggest cultural product is not a TV show and not a film (though Pixar’s Inside Out has gotten a fair amount of press).

No, it’s a book, y’all. A book.

A book that sold 1.1 million copies in its first week and now has over 3.3 million in print. A book for which a major Hollywood star recorded the audiobook; a book where advances of the first chapter were released by newspapers around the world.

A book that generated massive conversation in the months before its publication—a conversation that hasn’t abated since. Social media has been inundated with readers’ responses, the media can’t seem to let the story go (indeed, just this past Sunday in the New York Times ran yet another opinion piece), and people continue to talk about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

A lot.

Sure, folks are aghast that their puppies and sons now have a namesake who is, perhaps, less than the Gregory Peckian ideal they had hoped for. Maybe some research into the other Atticuses (Attici?) of antiquity might bring some solace: Archbishop Atticus of Constantinople, fighter of Pelagians; or notable Roman Titus Pomponius Atticus, friend of Cicero; or maybe Atticus, the Christian soldier martyr, burned at the stake in 315 AD. Surely, the name is redeemable.

And I agree that the ethics of the book’s path to publication seems a bit, well, shady. I fall into the camp that thinks that Go Set a Watchman is an early first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird—and not a mature novel that reflects Lee’s full craft. Nor should it be taken to do so. Certainly, it’s interesting as a literary artifact, it’s important for scholars to trace Lee’s development as a writer, it’s insightful as to the critical role of an editor in shaping a book, and it’s intriguing as a reflection of Lee’s thinking about race in the late 1950s. But ultimately, it’s a curiosity. And it does appear that there is credible evidence that lucre, not literature, was the aim in publication.

Whatever one thinks, however, what no one seems to be talking about is how in 2015 in America (and lots of other places, too), people are obsessed with a book. With arguing over fictional characters and their “true” identities. With talking again about how and why (or why not) the story of Scout and her town and her people matter.

And that’s what I find delightful: that even in a time where “no one” reads any more, where youth (pace J.K. Rowlings) supposedly don’t want to do anything but exist digitally, the ongoing arguments over Go Set a Watchman remind us that stories matter. Deeply. Especially ones that have come to be vital to our very identity.

In Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner contends that

It is well to remember what the ancient creeds of the Christian faith declare credence in….For better or worse, it is a story….It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling. (emphasis added)

Our challenge, then: what are the stories that we, as Christ-followers, are telling? Vital? Significant in addressing the issues of the day? More compelling than Scout and Atticus and Jem?

Or just a pretty tale now in the remainder bin, bypassed by the latest bestseller?

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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