The Surprising Reason “To Kill a Mockingbird” Became So Famous
This classic novel did win the Pulitzer Prize—but it was also in the right place at the right time.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has stood the test of time as a literary classic. The story of a young Alabama girl learning the truth about racial injustice as her father fights it might just change your life. But how did this novel gain enough fame to become one of the most influential high school English books, beloved by students and adults alike? There might be more to its success story than meets the eye.
To Kill a Mockingbird did well when it was published in 1960, getting good reviews and selling millions of copies. However, its massive, enduring success in the years following was pretty unprecedented. It wasn’t the best-selling book the year it came out, and its author was an unknown. Yet today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a high school graduate that hasn’t read it for at least one class, and in 2009, it beat out the Bible in a survey on the most inspirational book of all time. According to Vox on YouTube, the book might owe its enormous popularity, in part, to the year it was published. (Here are the five books Margaret Atwood can’t wait to read next.)
To Kill a Mockingbird hit shelves during what historians call “the paperback revolution.” This movement was spurred by the founding of Penguin Books in 1935, when paperback books were still pretty rare, and hardcovers were the norm. Since paperback books were so much cheaper, both to produce and to buy, Penguin pushed to mass-produce them, and this trend quickly caught on throughout the U.S. The market exploded with inexpensive paperback books, many of which were…less than hyper-moral in their subject matter. (Science has figured out why you love the smell of old books.) But by 1961, the year Mockingbird won the Pulitzer, publishers of these paperback books sought to break through to the world of academia. And what better way to do that than with a recently published, well-reviewed, morally inspiring book?
In 1962, the heretofore scandalous-murder-mystery publisher Popular Library released the mass-market edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. Educators had hit the jackpot—and so had the book. Between its subject matter, good writing, and its new inexpensive, widely available format, its place as a cultural icon was all but assured. If you haven’t read it—or these other classic books—yet, you definitely should!