In school, I think I remember this portion of the reading list concentrating on themes of place and time; how language and characterization (and plot) help to tell the historicity of a story.
Being a father to two young children, To Kill a Mockingbird has that much more cultural relevance (although its place and time is set in the pre-Civil Rights Deep South). I can see Scout and Jem and their crew in my own kids and their friends; their sense of wonder and the return to wildness of long summers.
And of Atticus' damned moral certitude. The ethical man is doomed to tragedy. As rich as the characters and writing are, what raises To Kill a Mockingbird above afternoon-special fare is its ever-present sense of foreboding.
Some sh-- is going to hit the fan. You know it from the opening sentence. You just don't know what it is. How bad it'll be. Lee suspends that uneasiness while at the same time balancing the stories of childhood, then slowly tips the scale as the kids grow from childhood to pre-adolescence; shades of grey and brown added to their worldview.
Atticus, their father, a widower, is imperfect. Downright negligent to his children's upbringing in some ways.
While the story is set in pre-Civil Rights Alabama, the parallels to current events are obvious (namely, the Evans, Grant, etc., killings).
To Kill a Mockingbird is an allegory of American society and its maturation of justice, equal rights and human respect. It isn't pretty. The victories on paper and realities don't make an even upward slope. There are peaks and valleys.
Amid all of this, our lives go on despite the clear societal failures after all we've come to know. Today, are we being true to our ideals? Are we Atticus, driven by the hope of our ideals and, for some, providence? Or are we the mob, the Bob Ewells of the world, swept up by fear and willful ignorance?
The best of literature makes you think in these terms. Takes your gaze from the pages in front of you, and with a deep breath, up to the person nearby. Let's think not just of ourselves, but of our children, and our children's children. Will our actions today help make a better, more just, world for them?
At this writing, I'm about a quarter in on the 1200-page unabridged monolith that is the Count of Monte Cristo. I mention it because the book's length will drop my book-completion rate a bit -- if causing an up-tick in enjoyment level.
Books read, third-quarter of 2014:
In Order of Enjoyment
To Kill a Mockingbird, H. Lee
Moon Palace, P. Auster
The Fall, A. Camus
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, H. Murakami
Of Mice and Men, J. Steinbeck
Ask the Dust, J. Fante
The Old Man and the Sea, E. Hemingway
Team Yankee, H. Coyle
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, G. Garcia-Marquez
Red Storm Rising, T. Clancy
The Little Prince, A. de Saint-Exupery
The Lover, M. Duras
The Things They Carried, T. O'Brien