Harper Lee on books and reading

I have long loved Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, even though I read it later in life. I have also appreciated Lee’s occasional commentary on the state of books and reading. This letter Lee wrote to Oprah’s O magazine really got me on a couple levels, not least because I finally broke down and bought a Kindle. The quotes belong to Ms. Lee.

1. The relative value of books.

Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store’s books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another’s entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again.

As we grew older, we began to realize what our books were worth: Anne of Green Gables was worth two Bobbsey Twins; two Rover Boys were an even swap for two Tom Swifts. Aesthetic frissons ran a poor second to the thrills of acquisition. The goal, a full set of a series, was attained only once by an individual of exceptional greed–he swapped his sister’s doll buggy.

2. The devastating effect of poverty on literacy

We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school.

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.

3. Books as stock for the full mind

Now, 75 years later in 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. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.

4. The inherent warmth of books

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.

What should this mean to us? Are we walking willfully into an electric fog, a world where Jim Hawkins, Tom and Huck, Ender Wiggin, Anne with an e, Bilbo and Frodo, and hundreds of other beloved book characters live in the shadows, while the bright spaces are occupied by the ephemeral and forgettable figures of our time? It’s certainly a tradeoff. We cannot ignore that electronic culture makes access to reading material a non-issue. But will our children want to read? And if so, what will they read?

Harper Lee is no pure book snob–Hannibal Lecter makes her list, after all–but she gets that a world without books will be colder, darker (despite the artificial light), and less enduringly interesting.

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