Nearly a year before Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was released in July 2015, the book world was abuzz with anticipation and speculation. To Kill a Mockingbird was 55 years old, and most people thought the elderly invalid author was a ‘one-hit wonder.’ The ongoing soap opera about the journey to publication of the “newly discovered” manuscript for a TKAM prequel/ first draft compounded expectations.
First reviews called out inconsistent and dull writing, and worse, our beloved do-gooder and small-town saint Atticus Finch was now an apathetic racist, bursting a grown-up Scout’s bubble, and our own.
While some refused to mar their pristine image of Atticus, and by proxy, his creator, others, like myself, didn’t back down from devouring it within a couple of days. After just one week, HarperCollins sold 1.1 million print and digital copies, making it the fastest-selling book in the publishing house’s history. Yet, as more people read it, the more they were disappointed – spurring hundreds of articles about the significance of GSAW in a time when racial unrest and violence is a daily headline.
Just weeks later, the reading world got a more positive announcement: a new Dr. Seuss book! An incomplete draft of What Pet Should I Get? written more than 50 years ago, was found among the late author/illustrator’s papers in 2013. Random House produced a final product that stayed true to Theodor Geisel’s style and spirit, and released the book to much fanfare. What Pet Should I Get? sold 200,000 copies in its first week, making it the fastest selling picture book at Random House Children’s Books in history and passing GSAW to take the top spot on the Publisher’s Weekly bestsellers list.
These two books made vastly different impressions upon release, prime examples of how we, as lovers of the written word, are so deeply impacted by our favorite authors. When the South Dakota State Historical Society published Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original manuscript that inspired the Little House series, a giant annotated doorstopper called Pioneer Girl, Wilder fans across the country went, well…wild with excitement, prompting eight print runs since 2014. In 2015, there was a hubbub around supposed newly uncovered and unsigned newspaper stories by Mark Twain. It turns out that the stories are not new, but part of an ongoing analysis from the Mark Twain Project, to be published in the next volume of an extensive collection dating back to the 1960s.
The new and undiscovered drives research and experimentation in nearly every field, from history and science, to health and nature. In literature, it creates a sense of nostalgia and intrigue for beloved authors. Just when you think you’ve exhausted the canon of Twain, Lee, or Wilder, a “new” work opens a whole new world. Some may prove to be a disappointment, but some bring joy and inspiration. Or perhaps we may even have a new favorite book.