Writing to Oprah Winfrey in 2006, Harper Lee, author of the often celebrated and occasionally condemned To Kill a Mockingbird, reflected on the role books played in her relatively privileged childhood in a small town during the Great Depression (see Letters of Note for the full letter):
So I arrived in the first grade, literate…
We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them.
And it wasn’t until we were grown, some of us, that we discovered what had befallen the children of our African-American servants. In some of their schools, pupils learned to read three-to-one — three children to one book, which was more than likely a cast-off primer from a white grammar school. We seldom saw them until, older, they came to work for us.
Eight decades later, much remains the same in the United States in terms of literacy and privilege. Reading is a luxury: it requires skills that must be taught and reinforced, the funds to purchase books, the time to visit the library, and the time to sit down and read. People who need to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet and those who shoulder heavy parental or caregiving responsibilities without reprieve might not have the time to read great books like Harper Lee’s or even less illustrious works like Fifty Shades of Grey. It takes time to read books to children, too.
Some may not have the ability to read at all. A study published a few years ago by the U.S. Department of Education found that 30 million adults in the United States read at a 5th grade or lower level. Not only are these individuals unable to enjoy literature, but many may also be unable to read their bills, address their health needs in a knowledgeable way, understand their legal rights, or find and keep jobs that will give them any hope of improving their economic futures. Thus, reading remains a privilege similar to how Lee described it.
At the same time, though, much has changed since Lee’s youth, including the digital revolution. In her letter, Lee laments these changes:
[I]n an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me… And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I prefer e-readers to “soft pages.” Still, I worry about the extent to which the proliferation of digital media exacerbates the difference between the privileged and those who are less so. For example, Lower Merion, a wealthy school district in suburban Philadelphia where most of the students probably already own laptops, gives its students laptops (which school employees then used to spy on students at home!). Meanwhile, the distressed Philadelphia school district does not even have the funds for books or libraries, much less the funds for laptops, when its students are far less likely to be have a computer at home.
Public libraries, one of the great equalizers in our society, have served as a place where people can access computers and even e-readers along with traditional books. Sadly, like public schools, many libraries are struggling due to lack of funding and other challenges. In this environment of budget cuts and closings, traditional and digital illiteracy will only get worse.
We can’t ignore these problems.