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7 Harper Lee Quotes That Capture Her Genius

by Sarah Bunton

Chances are, if you ever took an English or literature class at some point in your academic career, you probably read the classic book To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. If you're a millennial, too, you might not even realize the huge impact her iconic material had on women. Published in 1960 and set in the American South during the 1930s, Lee's character, Scout Finch, defied gender role expectations. This, among many reasons, is why many hearts are heavy after learning Harper Lee has died at the age of 89.

For plenty of readers, including me, losing myself in literature created and shaped by gifted writers was such a formative process. Reading that Scout Finch dressed like a tomboy, which was extremely rare in that era, and sought out strong female role models was absolutely inspiring. Additionally, the Finches neighbor, Miss Maudie, showed that an unmarried woman could be just find on her own, thanks, and spoke her mind regardless of if anyone thought that was "proper" or not.

Harper Lee, not just with the characters she created or narratives she explored, was an icon in American literature and American culture in general. Though decades passed between To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, its hotly debated sequel, some of Harper Lee's most notable quotes show how meaningful her words were and still are.

“It’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”

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This quote was part of brief remarks the author gave during a public appearance at a local Alabama awards ceremony in 2007 — a slice of wisdom spoken by a women who knew the power of silence and the power of words.

"Nothing was done for us, but the result was that we lived in our imagination."

In a 1964 radio interview included in the 2015 PBS documentary Hey Boo: How To Kill A Mockingbird (start at 2:10), Lee spoke of her Depression-era childhood and the resilience and creativity it built. In the instant-gratification-oriented present type, where the word "entitlement" is tossed around frequently when describing the current generation, Lee's words offer a humbling perspective about the strength gained during hardship.

"I had a speech prepared, but my heart is so full, I will not give it."

Even a talented author like Lee knew when to let the heart take the lead, as she demonstrated when she accepted an award from the Birmingham Pledge Foundation in 2006. It can be easy to get caught up in the moment and just ramble, but taking a second to step back and absorb the experience clearly has its merit, too.

"Love, then is a paradox: to have it, we must give it. Love is not an intransitive thing; ­love is a direct action of mind and body."

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A simple but profound quote from a 1964 article in Vogue. In an era when culture was on the cusp of free-love, Lee understood that love is neither passive nor something to be taken for granted.

"Rich or poor, you then can look anyone in the eye and say, 'I'm probably no better than you, but I'm certainly your equal.'"

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A young fan of Lee wrote her to ask for a photo, but she did him one better. Instead, she gave him this beautifully empowering advice about equality and self-worth.

"Some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal."

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Lee wrote a letter to Oprah about her general lack of interest in technology. It's not surprising that an author would treasure the feel of pages and smell of an old book over a Kindle. But it's about more than that. Lee is hinting at the different ways we connect and how technology may not be such a great thing for relationships.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

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One of the most memorable quotes from To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee stresses the importance of perspective. Written decades before gay marriage became legal or the #BlackLivesMatter movement began, Lee knew that people should pause before judging others because no one truly knows what it's like to walk in another's shoes.