Illiteracy and the Digital Divide: The Difference Between “Soft Pages” And “Cold Metal”

[Update (4/30/14): To Kill a Mockingbird will finally be available as an e-book]

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.


  1. Thanks for following my blog! This is a very intelligent and interesting post. I’ve never seen that letter from Harper Lee before. It’s fascinating. Books truly do open doors, and I think you have a great point about how e-readers can be excluding. The swapping & sharing of books (and knowledge) that Harper refers to from her childhood, and which is still definitely a big part of my life, could easily be lost to the more private e-reader experience. But at least the internet offers more widespread exposure to information and creativity.

    1. Thanks! I love reading letters from authors I admire. Letters of Note is a great blog with a great archive of material. I hope that the internet offers widespread exposure to information, but sadly, many of the people I meet through my legal work don’t have access to the internet except through their public libraries.

  2. I like a traditional book, myself, but I can’t argue with the convenience of having an e-Reader (especially since I travel a lot for work). I know that having an e-Reader is quite the luxury! But I hadn’t thought about books in general being a luxury. I grew up in a family that valued books and reading, and my mom made sure I had plenty of books of my own and plenty of trips to the public library. And I was fortunate enough to attend school in a suburban district that, while not the wealthiest in the area, was still very well-funded and made things like elective coursework and school plays an option for me. I know that many schools are under-funded but I never really thought about the fact that even use of the free public library is out of reach for many families – sad. Thanks for reminding us to be grateful for the time to read as well as the ability and resources!

    1. Hi Jaclyn! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. With Peanut at home, I know that your time is limited (in a good way)! I also feel lucky to have had so many educational opportunities growing up, including access to a well-funded public library. I wish more children were so lucky.

  3. Always thought-provoking as usual. I always thanked my mother for instilling a great love of reading in her children. We were not wealthy growing up. In fact we probably lived below the poverty level though I never knew it or felt that way, thanks to my parents. They made sure we learned how to use the library, the book swap, etc. (On the other hand, I’ve known parents who love to read with children who hate it, and children who love to read despite their parents never opening a book. Go figure.) Our public library is one of the busiest libraries I’ve ever seen which speaks well for the town, I suppose, but I’m sure there are many who’ve never seen the inside of it, and that group probably includes those who need it the most.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear that your public library is so busy! It should be a community institution, and hopefully those who need it most will make their way there eventually.

  4. The entire world, as well as untold universes are available because of writers and books. It is criminal if any school, any child, any adult doesn’t have access to them or the resources in which to learn how to use them. The world of stories, once only spread via verbal means is the great equalizer of peoples across the globe.

  5. As a slightly dyslexic reader, I LOVE e-readers because, if I choose, the story can be read to me. As a kid, I avoided reading. The only reading I did was required, so you can imagine how I missed out. But, I loved books and collected all that I could. Seems ironic. The pictures told the stories and made reading easier to do.

    I do agree that there is a romance to the written word in soft paged books. The question of reading and the privileged, seems to me a point more of goals in one’s life. I think there are books everywhere and all kids have to do is be motivated to get to them. We have a huge library a block away and it is usually only used by those that work there. Sad when books are so readily available. There are banks of computers too for any kid to sit and research a school project. The kids just have to schedule the time. See the problem here? Kids don’t schedule unless they have motivation. And the kids that do… just look at the computer screen to see what they are doing. It is not homework, it is social media and computer games. Not all kids, but seriously many.

    Plus, books are loaned out by people probably more than anything else in the world. I know so many people willing to lend a book. As per poor kids having laptops. The local school here provided each student with them. Quite a few students said they lost them, when in fact they sold them. The only kids this generosity benefits are the kids that see their lives having a good direction and productive future. The only ones that can guarantee that is the kids themselves. Sorry if I sound a bit jaded, but living in a city, you see reality.

    1. You make good points. There are under-utilized libraries, which is sad when so many kids are missing out on reading, and I agree that there is a risk in loaning laptops to individuals you might sell them for money. I don’t know how to address that, except to say that a laptop loaning program probably doesn’t help kids much when they are dealing with other challenges due to living in poverty. We need better solutions to poverty before we can fix education and improve literacy overall.

  6. The great divide between The Haves and The Have-Nots. Hate to turn your excellent post into a political statement, but I think this imbalance is what President Obama and the Democrats are trying to rebalance. Mr. Romney, on the other hand, likes it just the way it is.

  7. You make a good point here, about the privileged having a distinct advantage over those who can’t afford the latest electronic toys. In my recent book, Three of Swords, one main character is struggling with illiteracy. He simply never learned to read. In real life, I recently met someone who can’t read; he’s in his 40s and any time he’s handed paper with writing on it, he passes it to his girlfriend. Beyond the obvious need to understand road signs and such, reading is such a joy, I always feel bad when I meet someone who can’t enjoy it.

    1. It’s neat that you include illiteracy in your novel. It always seems to shock me when I meet someone with low literacy skills, but I really shouldn’t be surprised after having met several. Part of my job is creating self-help legal materials for low literacy litigants, and it’s almost impossible to get the reading level below 9th grade when legal terms are involved.

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