April 19, 2018

Go Set a Watchman By the Numbers

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanOn February 3 HarperCollins announced that it would be publishing a sequel to Nelle Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. In the wake of the news, speculation about Go Set a Watchman’s provenance abounded: Is it a sequel to Mockingbird, or a first draft? Did Lee’s lawyer actually discover the manuscript in a safe-deposit box after it was believed lost for decades? Was the timing of its discovery only two and a half months after the death of Lee’s sister Alice, often considered to be her protector, a coincidence?

Some answers can be found at Columbia University, where Karla Nielsen, curator of literature at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and colleagues put together a small exhibit featuring papers donated to Columbia in 1971 by Annie Laurie Williams. Williams, alongside Maurice Crain, was one of Lee’s literary agents in the 1950s. Evidence from Williams’ papers, as Nielsen outlined in a blog post, points to Watchman being the “parent” of Mockingbird.

Even in the face of uncertain truths, however, fans of To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee were unaffected—they were, largely, thrilled to read Lee’s new novel.

“Our patrons have been excited to get it,” Gayle Hunter Holloman, interim director of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System (AFPL), told Library Journal. “And, although reviews have been mixed, everyone wants to be the first to find out for himself or herself!”

“Everyone was all atwitter,” Bunny Hines Nobles, director of Monroe County Public Library (MCPL) in Monroeville, AL, said of Monroeville’s reaction after the release of the novel. Nobles and her colleagues were “delighted” that another one of Lee’s works was to going to be released. Sentiments of great respect and adulation for Lee and her accomplishments are plentiful in the small town of Monroeville—it’s Lee’s (or Nelle’s, as she is affectionately referred to by Nobles) birthplace, after all. “We’re very proud of [Lee].”

Watchman in the library

There is, indeed, much to be proud of—in the first week since its release on July 14th, Watchman sold more than 1 million copies in North America.

In the library sector, circulation figures are robust, with the number of holds almost always surpassing the number of copies a library owns.

At MCPL, which serves a population of about 24,000 people, 25 copies of the novel were ordered. According to Nobles, the new books have been “hot” and she is assured they will continue to be.

Several hours away at the 19-branch Birmingham Public Library, collection management coordinator Jared Millet told LJ that a week after the book began circulating, the system had approximately 350 holds on the novel. While certainly respectable, Millet had expected the number to be in the thousands. He attributed the relatively “small” number of holds to people going out and purchasing the book instead of checking it out from their local branches.

At the same time in Atlanta, the 34-branch system owned 135 copies of the novel and had 112 holds. “There has been an extremely high demand for the book, even more than we expected,” Holloman said. “And we have amended our orders accordingly for both [print] books and ebooks.”

Further north, at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), with 61 locations throughout the city, Peter Lehu, library supervisor of Philbrick Hall at the Central branch, offered initial stats for Watchman’s first week: the library ordered 88 print copies, 24 ebook copies, and eight digital audiobook copies; and there were 242 holds on the print versions, a significant 1,002 holds on the ebooks, and 129 holds on the audiobooks. FLP, Lehu added, planned on adding more audiobooks in the following few weeks in order to meet demand. At New York’s Brooklyn Public Library, communications coordinator Adam Leddy told LJ that his library had 487 holds on 200 print copies, 418 holds on 50 ebook copies, and 99 holds on 15 copies of downloadable audiobooks.

A number of libraries have incorporated Go Set a Watchman into programming such as discussion groups, readings by local authors, and book club recommendations, often combined with a screening of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. The Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs, CO, has chosen Watchman to be the One Book Steamboat community read in the fall; the library will screen To Kill a Mockingbird in September, and is hosting Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, in October. “Without a doubt, the release of Go Set a Watchman is a major literary event,” adult programs coordinator Jenny Lay told local newspaper Steamboat Today. “The world has been waiting 55 years to hear from Harper Lee again. So when we were picking a community read, this monumental literary event was an obvious choice.”

Kim Gluba, adult program coordinator at the Washington Public Library, MO, knew she wanted to create programming around Watchman as soon as she read HarperCollins’s announcement. While researching literary party games for a different event, she came across a game asking players to create epilogues for other novels based on Jane Austen’s epilogue for Pride and Prejudice, and thought that would be a fitting way to incorporate both of Lee’s books. She created a contest asking readers to imagine what happened to Mockingbird’s characters after its conclusion.

While only a small portion of the entry forms were actually returned by the contest’s deadline, Gluba told LJ, “The quality of these entries definitely made up for the quantity of entries returned.” The winning epilogue depicted Jem serving in military intelligence during World War II and Scout in Los Angeles, and “Dill became an investment banker on Wall Street but was swayed by greed and began bilking his investors and eventually went to prison.” The second-place winner had Jem going to war and dying with Atticus’s pocket watch on him; “our third place winner,” said Gluba, “had a graying Scout reading a Civil Rights speech from a laptop in her hometown of Maycomb.” The three winning entries received a copy of Watchman.

A “different person”

There are many reasons for the widespread interest in Go Set a Watchman, including To Kill a Mockingbird’s longstanding critical acclaim, its profound impact on readers in their formative years, and their deep connection to its characters.

But despite substantial enthusiasm, there has also been some hesitancy regarding the new novel.

Caught up in the whirlwind spurred by the novel’s release, Nobles has not yet had a chance to read Watchman, but she is of the mindset that people shouldn’t give too much weight to critical voices. “I’ve heard comments about Atticus [Finch] being a different person in [Go Set a Watchman]…” she told LJ. “People have to give [Watchman] a chance.”

“A different person” references what many readers of the new novel have noted as Lee’s flagrant shift in her characterization of Atticus. Michiko Kakutani, in an early New York Times review of Watchman, found it “disturbing” that Watchman’s Atticus is a “racist,” referring to the Atticus in Mockingbird as an “avatar of integrity.”

However, in his article for The Globe and Mail, Marcus Gee quoted a number of black residents of Monroeville who “say that they read Mockingbird in school, but found the racism it portrays hard to take. Still others say that despite all the progress the South has seen, racism or racial segregation lingers.” In sum, Gee wrote, “The Harper Lee phenomenon leaves [black residents of Monroeville] cold.”

High school students visiting Nielsen’s exhibit at Columbia University “…didn’t want to read the [new novel] because they were attached to Atticus’ characterization [in Mockingbird],” said Nielsen. Some students, Nielsen also discovered, thought that not reading the new novel would be a “form of respect” for Lee.

FLP’s Lehu, however, looked at Go Set a Watchman from a different perspective. “Personally, I don’t think [Watchman] adds or detracts from the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird,” he said. “As a historical document I think Watchman is important, and I hope the release inspires readers to reread the original novel and other classic literature from their youth.”

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
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  1. It is DELICIOUS!
    a little rough, but wonderous.