TIME Books

Read TIME’s Original Reviews of E.L. Doctorow’s Books

His characters "discover the submerged foundations of the American psyche"

The death on Tuesday of E.L. Doctorow ended a decades-long career built on emphasizing the “story” in history.

As TIME described it in a 1975 bio that accompanied the review of his masterwork Ragtime, the story of how he became a writer was one built on belief in himself: “Not long after he got out of the Army in 1954, E.L. (Edgar Lawrence) Doctorow sat down on a wooden crate in front of his typewriter and told his wife Helen, ‘This is the way we are going to survive.’ He had $135 to his name. Forty-eight hours later, he had $50 left and a lot of blank paper. For the next 20 years, Doctorow fought the blank page—and won four times.” During those decades he had several other jobs (airline clerk, editor, teacher) but from that point on he was what he had intended to be: a writer.

Here’s what TIME said about several of his best-known works:

The Book of Daniel (1971):The Book of Daniel, transparently based on the Rosenberg case, is a bold novel that, all things considered, is surprisingly successful. Doctorow‘s biggest gamble was sinking his energies into the Rosenberg case in the first place. Not that successful fiction cannot spring from old newspapers, as Dostoevsky and Dreiser both demonstrated. But the Rosenberg trial was a kind of drawn-out, draining and rather grisly national ordeal.”

Read the full review

Ragtime (1975): “In Doctorow‘s hands, the nation’s secular fall from grace is no catalogue of sin, no mere tour de force; the novelist has managed to seize the strands of actuality and transform them into a fabulous tale.”

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Loon Lake (1980): “The written surface of Loon Lake is ruffled and choppy. Swatches of poetry are jumbled together with passages of computerese and snippets of mysteriously disembodied conversation. Narration switches suddenly from first to third person, or vice versa, and it is not always clear just who is telling what. Chronology is so scrambled that the aftereffects of certain key events are described before the events occur. Such dislocations are undeniably frustrating at first, but they gradually acquire hypnotic force. Reading the book finally seems like overhearing bits of an oddly familiar tune.”

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World’s Fair (1985):Doctorow calls it a novel. But the book reads like a memoir, and is unmistakably based on the author’s early boyhood in the Bronx. The account begins with a bed wetting in the middle of the Depression and ends on the eve of World War II with a nine-year-old Edgar Altschuler burying a cardboard time capsule containing a Tom Mix decoder badge, his school report on the life of F.D.R., a harmonica and a pair of Tootsy Toy lead rocket ships, ‘to show I had foreseen the future.'”

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Billy Bathgate (1989): “[Doctorow] is mixing elements from his other novels in a manner that proves combustible and incandescent. Part of the allure springs from the subject, which plays upon the mysterious fascination that outlaws and gangsters have always held for law-abiding American citizens.”

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The Waterworks (1994): “Even longtime readers, though, are likely to find The Waterworks Doctorow‘s strangest and most problematic invention so far. The setting is New York City in 1871, although the story of what happened there and then is told at an indeterminate later date by a man named McIlvaine, who notes, at one point in his narrative, ‘I have to warn you, in all fairness, I’m reporting what are now the visions of an old man.’ A number of similar caveats are interspersed throughout the story, and taken together they add another level of mystery to the point he makes over and over again: he has been a witness to horror and lived to tell the tale.”

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City of God (2000): “The true miracle of City of God is the way its disparate parts fuse into a consistently enthralling and suspenseful whole. In such novels as Ragtime (1975) and Billy Bathgate (1989), Doctorow mixed historical and fictional figures in ways that magically challenged ordinary notions of what is real. His new novel repeats this process, with even more intriguing and unsettling consequences.”

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The March (2005): “History. James Joyce called it a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. But for E.L. Doctorow it’s more of an ill-defined dream state that he doggedly revisits, working all the while to get the thing decoded. In his best books, like Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, Doctorow mixes historical figures with fictional characters to discover the submerged foundations of the American psyche. His spellbinding new novel, The March (Random House; 363 pages), is one to put beside those, a ferocious reimagining of the past that returns it to us as something powerful and strange.”

Read the full review

TIME People

E.L. Doctorow, Master of Historical Fiction, Dies at 84

The cause was complications from lung cancer, his son said

E.L. Doctorow, the celebrated American author of historical novels including Ragtime and The March, died on Tuesday in New York City. He was 84.

Doctorow’s son, Richard, said the cause of death was complications from lung cancer, the New York Times reports.

Published in 1975, Ragtime followed three families over the course of the early 20th century as they lived their daily lives, often interacting briefly with famous Americans.

It was included on a list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library in 1999 and on a list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923 by TIME magazine in 2010.

Read more at the Times.

TIME Crime

Roberto Saviano: El Chapo’s Rise to Power And His First Prison Break

Roberto Saviano is the author of Gomorrah and ZeroZeroZero

How Joaquín Guzman made his way in the cocaine trade—and into the U.S.—to become El Chapo of legend

The Sinaloa cartel is hegemonic. In Sinaloa, drugs provide jobs for everyone. Entire generations have fed themselves thanks to drugs. From peasants to politicians, police officers to slackers, the young and the old. Drugs need to be grown, stocked, transported, protected. In Sinaloa, all who are able are enlisted. The cartel operates in the Golden Triangle, and with over 160 million acres under its control, it’s the biggest cartel in all of Mexico. It manages a significant slice of U.S. cocaine traffic and distribution. Sinaloa narcos are present in more than eighty American cities, with cells primarily in Arizona, California, Texas, Chicago, and New York. They distribute Colombian cocaine on the American market. According to the Office of the United States Attorney General, between 1990 and 2008 the Sinaloa cartel was responsible for the importation and distribution of at least two hundred tons of cocaine, as well as vast quantities of heroin, into the United States.

Until El Chapo’s arrest in 2014, Sinaloa was his realm and he was viewed in the United States as having a significance akin to a head of state. Coke, marijuana, amphetamines: Most of the substances that Americans smoke, snort, or swallow have passed through his men’s hands. From 1995 to 2014 he was the big boss of the faction that emerged from the ashes of the Guadalajara clan after the Big Bang in 1989. El Chapo, aka Shorty, five feet five inches of sheer determination.

El Chapo didn’t lord it over his men, didn’t dominate them physically; he earned their trust. His real name is Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, born on April 4, 1957, in La Tuna de Badiraguato, a small village with a few hundred inhabitants in the Sierra Madre mountains in Sinaloa. Like every other man in La Tuna, Joaquín’s father was a rancher and farmer, who raised his son on beatings and farmwork.

These were the years of opium. El Chapo’s entire family was involved: a small army devoted to the cultivation of opium poppies, from dawn to dusk. El Chapo started at the bottom: Before he was allowed to follow the men along impassable roads to the poppy fields he had to stay at his mother’s side and bring his older brothers their lunch. One kilo of opium gum brought in eight thousand pesos for the family, the equivalent of seven hundred dollars today. The head of the family had to get the gum into the next step of the chain. And that step meant a city, maybe even Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. No easy feat if you’re merely a farmer, but easier if the farmer in question, El Chapo’s father, is related to Pedro Avilés Pérez—a big-shot drug lord. The young El Chapo, having reached the age of twenty, began to see a way out of the poverty that had marked the lives of his ancestors.

At that time it was El Padrino, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, who ruled in Sinaloa: Together with his partners, Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, he controlled the coming and going of every drug shipment in Mexico. Joining the organization was a natural step for the young El Chapo, as was accepting his first real challenge: handling the drugs from the fields to the border. If you want to get to the top, you can’t take pity if someone makes a mistake, you can’t back down when underlings make excuses for not keeping to the schedule. If there was a problem, El Chapo eliminated it. If a peasant was enticed by someone with a fatter wallet, El Chapo eliminated him. If a driver with a truckload of drugs got drunk and didn’t deliver his shipment the next morning, El Chapo eliminated him. Simple and effective.

El Chapo soon proved himself trustworthy, and in a few years’ time he was one of the men closest to El Padrino. He learned many things from El Padrino, including the most important one: how to stay alive as a drug trafficker. Just like Félix Gallardo, in fact, El Chapo lived a quiet life, not too ostentatious, not too many frills. El Chapo married four times and fathered nine children, but he never surrounded himself with hordes of women.

When El Padrino was arrested and the race to find an heir began, El Chapo decided to remain loyal to his mentor. He was methodical, and didn’t flaunt his power. He wanted to keep his family beside him, wanted his blood bonds to be his armor. He moved from Sinaloa to Guadalajara, the last place El Padrino lived before his arrest, while he based his organization in Agua Prieta, a town in the state of Sonora, convenient because it borders the United States. El Chapo remained in the shadows, and from there he governed his rapidly growing empire.

Whenever he traveled, he did so incognito. People would say they’d spotted him, but it was true only one time out of a hundred. El Chapo and his men used every form of transport available to get drugs into the United States. Planes, trucks, railcars, tankers, cars. In 1993 an underground tunnel was discovered, nearly fifteen hundred feet long, 65 feet belowground. Still incomplete, it was going to connect Tijuana to San Diego.

These were years of settling scores against rivals, of escapes and murders. On May 24, 1993, Sinaloa’s rival cartel, Tijuana, recruited some trustworthy killers to strike at the heart of the Sinaloa cartel. Two important travelers were expected at the Guadalajara airport that day: El Chapo Guzmán and Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, who, as archbishop of the city, had railed constantly against the drug lords’ power. The killers knew that El Chapo was traveling in a white Mercury Grand Marquis, a must for drug barons. The cardinal was in a white Mercury Grand Marquis as well. The Tijuana hit men started shooting at what they believed to be the boss of Sinaloa’s car, and others—El Chapo’s bodyguards, maybe—returned fire. The airport parking lot suddenly became hell. The shoot-out left seven men dead, among them Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, while El Chapo managed to escape, unscathed. For years people wondered if the killers really wanted to eliminate the inconvenient cardinal, or if chance had merely played a bad joke on Posadas Ocampo that morning. It was only recently that the FBI declared the killing a tragic case of mistaken identity.

El Chapo was arrested on June 9, 1993. He continued to manage his affairs from prison with scarcely a hitch. The maximum security prison Puente Grande, where he was transferred in 1995, became his new base of operations. After eight years, however, El Chapo could no longer afford to remain behind bars: The Supreme Court had approved a law making it much easier to extradite narcos to the United States. American incarceration would mean the end of everything. So El Chapo chose the evening of January 19, 2001. The guards were bribed handsomely.

One of them—Francisco Camberos Rivera, known as El Chito, or the Silent One—opened the door to El Chapo’s cell and helped him climb into a cart of dirty laundry. They headed down unguarded hallways and through wide-open electronic doors to the inner parking lot, where only one guard was on duty. El Chapo jumped out of the cart and leaped into the trunk of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. El Chito started it up and drove him to freedom.

El Chapo became everybody’s hero, a legend. He kept on running his cartel with the help of his closest collaborators: Ismael Zambada García, known as El Mayo; Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, known as Nacho, who was killed on July 29, 2010, during a raid by the Mexican military; and his adviser, Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, who was known as El Azul, or Blue, because of his dark complexion. These men were the undisputed princes of Mexican drug trafficking for about a decade after the Sinaloa cartel was founded in 1989.


Roberto Saviano is the author of Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’s Organized Crime System and has lived under police protection since its publication in 2006. His new book, ZeroZeroZero, about the global cocaine trade, is out this month.

From ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Roberto Saviano, 2015.

Read next: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About El Chapo

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME ebola

Ebola Doctor Recounts His Battle with the Virus in New Book

WaterBrook Press

Dr. Kent Brantly and his wife Amber detail the physician's work on Ebola—and his survival of it

A year after Dr. Kent Brantly captivated the world as the first American with Ebola to be treated in the United States, the medical missionary and his wife Amber have penned a new book, Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us Into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic, which chronicles their experiences as two medical missionaries unexpectedly propelled into a devastating outbreak.

Among the most captivating—and disturbing sections—are the Brantlys’ retelling of when Ebola first crept into West Africa, and Kent’s detailed description of what it felt like when the virus invaded his body. “I also developed a petechial rash: small red spots from my chest out to my arms,” Kent writes, clinically describing the progression of symptoms. “Their appearance meant blood vessels had broken in those areas. Over the next couple of days, the rash would progress until the spots coalesced into generalized, large red erythematous rash from head to toe.”

Though the year of Ebola epidemic news coverage has increased public understanding of the virus, Kent’s narrative reiterates how devastating and serious an Ebola diagnosis was, and still remains. He vividly describes moments of panic when during which he wrapped himself around the ankles of victims’ family member, begging them not to take the contagious bodies of their loved ones home.

While the Brantly family—among a handful of other patients—put a face to the outbreak, the couple dedicate a large portion of the book to describe Ebola’s unseen victims. There was Harris the plumber, who tried to help a woman get her Ebola-infected husband to a hospital, only to catch and die from the disease himself. There was Lusu, a mother who watched both her daughters die before she succumbed herself. The Brantlys also recount some of the factors that contributed to the epidemic’s spread, like the dearth of latex gloves in hospitals. Despite the fact that Liberia is one of the largest producers of raw latex, most of it is exported.

The Brantlys’ story is also emotional, tacking between Kent and Amber’s recollections of the same events: Kent, in Liberia, unsure he can breathe much longer, while a heartbroken Amber prays in the United States that her husband makes it through the night. Those who followed the Brantly family’s story in real-time will remember how often Kent thanked God for his life during his discharge press conference from Emory University Hospital. The book is written in a similar vein, with plenty of references to Bible versus and prayer. Brantly addresses potential critics head-on, writing that he’s never used his medical position to evangelize, and he explains his own occasional struggles to reconcile God with science:

“I know that some consider it controversial for me to claim that God saved my life when I had received an experimental drug and some of the greatest medical care available in the world. I can see how these two realities appear to contradict each other. I also feel the dissonance with claiming God saved my life while thousands of others died. These issues are not clear-cut for me. I wrestle with these tensions… Some may call it a grand coincidence, and I couldn’t argue against them. But when I see the unlikely and highly improbable events that occurred—not only during my illness, but also for decades preceding the Ebola epidemic in West Africa—I see the hand of God at work, and I give him the credit.”

The Brantly family recently returned to Liberia to visit the country they previously called home. In May Liberia was declared Ebola-free, but by July 1 officials announced the country has new cases of the disease. So far, Ebola has infected over 27,690 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, killing over 11,260.

TIME People

5 Times Ernest Hemingway Cheated Death

Ernest Disapproval
Lloyd Arnold—Getty Images Ernest Hemingway works at his typewriter while sitting outdoors, in Idaho on Oct. 7, 1939

July 21, 1899: Ernest Hemingway is born in Oak Park, Ill.

Hemingway didn’t become known as a “literary he-man” without taking a few risks — in art and in life. From his birth on this day, July 21, in 1899, to his death in 1961, he had nearly as many real-life brushes with death as he assigned to his similarly he-manly fictional characters.

He’d been obsessed with death ever since he confronted it — and nearly succumbed to it — on an Italian battlefield during World War I, according to TIME. And although he ultimately died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 61, while suffering from a number of disabling physical and mental illnesses, the idea of facing down death at the hands of an enemy soldier, or on the horns of a bull, had long captivated him and infused his writing. Remarking on his concise but vivid prose, TIME noted in 1961: “Everything in Hemingway is seen as it might be looked at by a man on the day he knew he would die.”

True to his larger-than-life fortitude, Hemingway seemed to court death wherever he went — and to do so with vigorous good humor. Here are some of the many ways he almost went before his time:

1. Shredded by an Austrian mortar shell. During World War I, Hemingway served on the Italian front lines as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross. On July 8, 1918, per TIME, he was “so badly wounded in a burst of shellfire that he felt life slip from his body, ‘like you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner,’ and then return. He emerged with 237 bits of shrapnel (by his own count), an aluminum kneecap, and two Italian decorations.”

2. Shot while wrangling a shark. In a 1935 dispatch for Esquire (headlined “On Being Shot Again,” and collected in the book By-Line Ernest Hemingway), Hemingway doles out advice on how best to kill a large animal: shoot it in the brain if it’s close, the heart if it’s far or the spine if you need to stop it instantly. He was inspired to offer these instructions, he writes, “on account of just having shot himself in the calves of both legs” while attempting to gaff a shark on a fishing trip off Key West.

3. Hunting German subs from his fishing boat. During 1942 and 1943, Hemingway spent less time writing than he did aboard his 38-ft. wooden fishing boat, armed with grenades and submachine guns, scanning the Gulf Stream for German U-boats, according to Terry Mort, author of The Hemingway Patrols. Hemingway knew that if he spotted an enemy sub, it was unlikely that the Navy could respond quickly enough to destroy it. “His solution,” Mort writes, “was characteristic: he would attack the U-boat — suddenly and unexpectedly — and then run for it.” Luckily, Hemingway never had the opportunity to put his reckless plan into action.

4 (and 5). Downed in a plane crash—twice. While on an African safari in 1954, Hemingway survived two plane crashes in two days. In the first, a single-engine Cessna carrying Hemingway and his wife crashed when the pilot attempted an emergency landing to avoid hitting a flock of ibises. Forced to choose between “a sandpit where six crocodiles lay basking in the sun or an elephant track through thick scrub,” according to the New York Times, the pilot chose the scrub, and the trio spent the night in the jungle, surrounded by elephants. The next day, the Hemingways boarded another small plane — which crashed and caught fire. Both were seriously injured, although not quite badly enough to warrant the many newspaper headlines reporting their death. Hemingway walked out of the jungle in high spirits, per TIME, “carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin, and was quoted, possibly even correctly, as saying: ‘My luck, she is running very good.’”

Read a 1954 profile of Hemingway, here in the TIME archives: An American Storyteller

Read next: Read a Hemingway-Era Account of the Running of the Bulls

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TIME Books

What America Should Learn From Greece

Austerity Greece
Bloomberg/Getty Images Customers queue outside a National Bank of Greece SA bank branch ahead of opening in Athens, July 20, 2015.

Arthur C. Brooks is the author of The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America

Austerity is a disaster for the vulnerable—but it's the result of runaway spending, not forward-looking belt-tightening

Greece and the European Union may have temporarily staved off disaster. But while economists agree that structural reforms are the right long-term decision, many worry that austerity will impose considerable short-term pain on Greek citizens and further depress the country’s struggling economy. Signs suggest that financial markets and big business would welcome the agreement, but ordinary Greeks will continue to pay a heavy price as the Greek economy continues to contract.

What can America learn from this? At first glance, liberals and conservatives seem to draw opposite lessons. The left sees the Greek disaster as evidence that austerity and belt-tightening are unfair and painful. Meanwhile, the right sees the disaster as a lesson in the need for fiscal restraint and the dangers of big deficits.

Both arguments get something right. First, as I explain in my new book The Conservative Heart, blunt austerity is disastrous for the most vulnerable. Suicides have spiked in Greece since the financial crisis as unemployment rates have surged upward. Rates of homelessness and food insecurity have risen. Just last week, the New York Times reported that many social welfare programs have been a casualty of Greek spending cuts.

But this terrible austerity is not the natural result of tightwad governance and obsession with belt-tightening. Rather, it’s the inevitable outcome of runaway spending, fueled by an ever-growing desire to expand the social safety net across the entire Greek society.

So what is the takeaway lesson for the United States? If social safety net programs metastasize into expansive middle class entitlements, the poor get left behind when it comes time to pay the bill.

Virtually all Americans agree that we need a functioning and financially stable safety net for the truly indigent. Yet a Greek-style welfare state, overextended and insolvent, is the last thing we want. What does a real solution look like?

In The Conservative Heart, I offer three pillars for a conservative approach to the safety net. First, conservatives need to declare “peace” on the safety net in principle. A myth has spread in recent years that conservatives are opposed to any kind of social support. This is plainly untrue. From the famed economist Friedrich Hayek to President Ronald Reagan, conservative heroes have always championed a legitimate government role in providing vulnerable people with basic necessities of life when they are out of work or unable to provide for themselves. This is a conservative principle, and all conservatives should celebrate it.

But this is where the second key principle comes in: the safety net must be carefully targeted towards the poor and indigent. There is a huge difference between genuine social assistance that supports people who truly aren’t making it and a sprawling web of government programs that try to insure middle-class people against all the risks of life. The former encourages earned success; the latter crowds it out. The former makes the economy more dynamic and opportunity more abundant; the latter discourages Americans from remaining in the workforce. The former is financially sustainable; the latter destroys the very economic growth it needs to keep the checks coming.

Third and finally, the safety net must encourage and require work wherever possible. Of course, there are Americans who truly cannot work, and nobody is suggesting yanking the rug out from beneath them. But we are a long, long way from every able-bodied American having access to meaningful work. Only 60-some percent of Americans are even in the labor force at all. And for many citizens, poorly-designed disability insurance programs have morphed into a permanent unemployment benefit that they were never intended to provide.

Human beings are made for work. A wealth of social science shows that, from the standpoint of happiness, government benefits are a terrible substitute for the dignity that comes from working hard and earning one’s own way. This isn’t some conservative cliché. It’s a truth about human nature that is backed by the best research. Americans deserve the opportunity to work—and smart welfare policy has to nudge people in that direction.

These three principles—declare “peace” on the safety net, target spending on the indigent, and insist on work—can form the cornerstone of a New Right movement that dedicates itself to fighting for poor and struggling people. And more important, it will ensure we avoid becoming a Greek tragedy ourselves.

Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, where he is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise. His new book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, was released on July 14, 2015.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman Sells More Than a Million Copies

Despite the critics' controversy, Harper Lee's latest book hit 1.1 million in sales

(NEW YORK) — Critics dismissed it as a rough draft for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and readers despaired over an aging, racist Atticus Finch.

But Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is still a million seller.

HarperCollins announced Monday that “Go Set a Watchman” in its combined print, electronic and audio formats has sold 1.1 million copies in the U.S. and Canada, a figure which includes first-week sales and months of pre-orders. The publisher stunned the world in February when it revealed that a second novel was coming from Lee, who had long insisted that “To Kill a Mockingbird” would be her only book.

HarperCollins, where authors have included Michael Crichton and Veronica Roth, is calling “Watchman” its fastest seller in history. Other books have sold much faster: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” published in the U.S. by Scholastic in 2007, sold 8.3 million copies in its first 24 hours.

“Watchman” was released July 14 and as of early Monday remains at No. 1 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, with “Mockingbird” also in the top 10. HarperCollins has increased an initial print run of 2 million copies for “Watchman” to 3.3 million.

“Watchman” was completed before Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Mockingbird,” but is set in the same Alabama community 20 years later. Critics and readers were startled to find the heroic Atticus of “Mockingbird” disparaging blacks and condemning the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw segregation in public schools.

Questions about the book arose almost immediately after HarperCollins announced it, with Lee scholars noting that “Watchman” was the work of a young and inexperienced author and friends and admirers of the 89-year-old author worrying that the book had been approved without her participation. State officials in Lee’s native Alabama, where she resides in an assisted living facility, met with her and concluded she was alert and able to make decisions about “Watchman,” which Lee attorney Tonja Carter has said she discovered last year.

TIME Books

Atticus Finch Confronted What the South Couldn’t

In 'To Kill a Mockingbird', Harper Lee recognized the way white southerners face harsh truths—In 'Go Set a Watchman', she did not

While there are many noble characters in the pantheon of Southern fiction, few have the iconic standing of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. Since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird more than 50 years ago, this fictional character has become profoundly real to many Southerners, and not just because of the way Gregory Peck brought him to life on film. For former United Nations ambassador and Georgia native Andrew Young, Atticus Finch represented “a generation of intelligent white lawyers who eventually, in the ’50s and ’60s, became the federal judges who changed the South.” Tennessee native and journalist Jon Meacham once said, “We all like to think Atticus Finch was our father or grandfather.”

Now Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, which is set some 20 years after Mockingbird, presents a less than noble Atticus, one you may not want to think of as your father or grandfather. The man who performed the valiant job of defending a black man falsely accused of rape in Mockingbird is now, in the pages of Watchman, attending Ku Klux Klan meetings, joining the White Citizen’s Council, and advocating eugenics. This new depiction of Atticus will certainly change the legacy of a seminal figure in Southern literature.

The South came to idolize Atticus Finch because he confronted the issue of race in a way that white Southerner liberals and moderates in the ’60s wish they could have had they lived back in ’30s. At the same time, Atticus gave them permission to stand up against the gross inequities of Jim Crow laws, which were still in effect when the book was first published.

To Kill A Mockingbird is not a book I read in school, but was one I read on my own. I am a child of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, but few public schools in Mississippi’s post-1970s court-ordered integration era were willing to take on Lee’s novel. Race was not discussed at school, even though the issue hovered throughout everyone’s life in the small town where I grew up. Consequently, Mockingbird was a book I discussed outside of class with like-minded classmates, both black and white. As my children grew up, Mockingbird had become required reading in seventh grade at their Washington, DC, public school and they were able to have discussion on race in the classroom I could never have.

A few years ago, when I was invited to read at the Alabama Literary Festival, I witnessed first-hand how Lee’s hometown of Monroeville—and indeed all Southerners—had come to embrace the novel. After watching a re-enactment of Mockingbird’s courtroom scene from the “colored” balcony at the town’s courthouse and gathering by the monument to Atticus with a group of fellow writers, I noticed how we all spoke of him as if he were someone we knew, not someone we read about in the pages of a novel.

The reason the Atticus of Mockingbird is iconic and the one in Watchman feels alien is because as Lee reworked Watchman into Mockingbird, she tapped into a key component of Southern culture: the need for folk heroes and mythic figures. It is through the folklore of the South that the region places a mirror up to its virtues and failures. Robert Penn Warren created Willie Stark in All the King’s Men as a means of looking at stories surrounding Southern politicians like the populist (or demagogic, depending on your view) Louisiana governor and U.S. Senator Huey P. Long—who is said be the basis for Stark. William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner drew on both narrative accounts of a slave uprising and the folklore surrounding the leader of the rebellion, Nat Turner. It was in this tradition that Lee created Atticus Finch.

Without a doubt, Harper Lee recognized that folklore and myth stand as pillars of the way Southerners both face harsh truths and—as we have seen recently in the debate over the Confederate flag—cover them up. Southerners, particularly white Southerners, needed a figure that represented the tradition of the progressive in the history of the region, protagonists like turn-of-the-century New South advocate Henry Grady, whose speeches Atticus advises his son Jem to read in Mockingbird. Atticus Finch became that figure. Segregation painted even progressive Southern whites in a corner that became violent and ugly, and Atticus Finch revealed to them a way out. As Southern historian C. Vann Woodward has noted, irony and the South have never been strangers.

If there is one mythic theme that has the strongest hold on the mind of the South, it is equality and its connection to the past and present. The very idea that a separate social system under Jim Crow could be considered equal is an example of this myth’s primacy. What Lee sought to do in Mockingbird was to reveal holes in the myth of equality in the South, but in a way that both Southerners and Northerners could understand. Atticus was the convener of this discussion: Like any Southern liberal of his generation, Atticus does not challenge the foundation of Jim Crow privilege, even though he is actively defending a black client and trying to show his fellow white citizens to learn how to walk in another man’s shoes. He knows that he cannot convince a jury to treat Tom Robinson as an equal. So, Atticus Finch was a man of his time rather than a man before his time.

It is difficult to see how the Atticus of 1935 in Mockingbird would have evolved into the intolerant old man depicted more than 20 years later in Watchman. The older, more infirm Atticus lacks the moral center that drove him in Mockingbird. The book itself does not indulge in that bigotry—the adult Scout is physically repulsed by her father’s attitude. But this doesn’t work as well as it should because the adult Scout—now called Jean Louise—is preachy and self-righteous. And now, there’s no one to cheer for. It is clear why Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff asked her to rework the narrative.

Lee’s original creation may have lacked the complexity of the way William Faulkner wrestled with race in his fiction, but the simplicity of the storytelling allowed Atticus’s message of racial justice to reach a broader audience. Unfortunately Watchman does not embrace that complexity either and also lacks power in its storytelling.

Lee has created two separate but unequal fictional universes. Yes, they are part of a continuum—and they also represent some kind of corruption of Atticus that we can’t forgive because he devolves rather than evolves. In Watchman, Atticus becomes part of the forces in the South that Lee wrote Mockingbird to counteract.

I am with the group that feels Go Set a Watchman should have been left in that safe deposit box in Monroeville, to be discovered and studied by scholars as an artifact after Lee’s death rather than published for millions to read. It is more compelling to see how a writer’s work evolves rather than to publish an earlier draft, no matter how well written it is. And we all know it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Ralph Eubanks is the author of Ever is a Long Time and The House at the End of the Road. A native Mississippian, he now lives in Washington. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square

TIME psychology

Stop Trying to Achieve Work-Life Balance

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Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

There are other dynamics at play

Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

Few books I’ve read contain more marked passages and pages than David Whyte’s passionate and thought-provoking book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, which argues we should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance.

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

Whyte argues that we come to a sense of meaning and belonging “only through long periods of exile and loneliness.”

Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.

These three lifelong pursuits, Whyte believes, “involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.” Neglecting any one of these “impoverishes them all” because they are not mutually distinct but rather “different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.” Our flirtation with each differs and yet we are left to inter-weave the vows into a cohesive person, consciously or unconsciously.

Whyte’s premise is also his conclusion:

We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

… [E]ach of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. … (once we understand they are not negotiable) we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.

Perhaps this resonates with me more than most because I’ve always found the argument that we should live a balanced life lacking. At its heart this implies we should trade one aspect for another, compromising as we go. To me this trimming of excess in one area to prop up another serves to remove, not create, meaning.

The other argument that Whyte surfaces penetrates the fabric of our human needs: the constant tug of war between our social desires and our need for space. This is another area where we naturally try to find balance and in so doing compromise part of ourselves.

The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship “dispels the myth that we are predominately thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragons of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective.”

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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TIME Books

J.K. Rowling Says Hogwarts is Free

No loans for Harry or Ron

J.K. Rowling tweeted Friday that Hogwarts is tuition-free because the Ministry of Magic pays for all magical education expenses.

The tweet was prompted by a Mic piece that estimated it would cost more than $43,000 per year for Harry Potter and his friends to go to Hogwarts, if you included the cost of wands, robes, and cauldrons. Over seven years of magical training, that adds up to more than $300,000.

But when asked about the cost, J.K. Rowling clarified that actually, magical education is free.

When Mic tweeted back at her that Muggles should follow the Ministry’s lead, Rowling heartily agreed.

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