Harper Lee on the Joy of Reading Real Books: “Some Things Should Happen On Soft Pages, Not Cold Metal”

News of the new, long-await­ed but hard­ly expect­ed Harp­er Lee nov­el, Go Set a Watch­mana sequel to the 1960’s To Kill a Mock­ing­birdhas been met with vary­ing degrees of skep­ti­cism, sure­ly war­rant­ed giv­en her late sis­ter Alice and oth­ers’ char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Lee’s phys­i­cal and men­tal decline. On the oth­er hand, the nov­el­ist, it’s been report­ed, is “extreme­ly hurt” by alle­ga­tions that she has been pres­sured to pub­lish. It would be a shame if the con­tro­ver­sy over the pub­li­ca­tion of the nov­el eclipsed the nov­el itself. While it had become some­thing of a tru­ism that Harp­er Lee would only pub­lish the one, great nov­el and nev­er anoth­er, I for one greet this lat­est news with joy.

For one thing, cir­cum­stances aside, the new Harp­er Lee nov­el has the mass media doing some­thing it rarely does anymore—talking about lit­er­ary fic­tion. And for the thou­sands of school kids required to read To Kill a Mock­ing­bird and won­der­ing why they should both­er, the con­ver­sa­tion hope­ful­ly com­mu­ni­cates that books still mat­ter, and not just dystopi­an YA sci-fi and mass-mar­ket trade books about BDSM fan­tasies, but books about ordi­nary peo­ple in ordi­nary times and places. It’s a les­son Lee learned ear­ly. In a 2006 let­ter to Oprah Win­frey, pub­lished in O mag­a­zine, Lee wrote about her child­hood expe­ri­ences with read­ing, and being read to. She recalls arriv­ing “in the first grade, lit­er­ate,” because of her upbring­ing. She also acknowl­edges that “books were scarce”; her and her sib­lings ear­ly lit­er­a­cy meant they were “priv­i­leged” com­pared to oth­er chil­dren, “most­ly from rur­al areas,” and the “chil­dren of our African-Amer­i­can ser­vants.”

While we may dis­miss Lee’s con­tention that in “an abun­dant soci­ety where peo­ple have lap­tops, cell phones” and “iPods” they also have “minds like emp­ty rooms” as the kvetch­ing of a senior cit­i­zen, I doubt most peo­ple who respect Lee’s wis­dom and good humor would do so light­ly. Her poet­ic evo­ca­tion of the tac­tile dif­fer­ences between books and gad­gets alone should give us pause: “some things should only hap­pen on soft pages, not cold met­al.”

Read the full let­ter below.

May 7, 2006

Dear Oprah,

Do you remem­ber when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remem­ber a time when you did­n’t know how? I must have learned from hav­ing been read to by my fam­i­ly. My sis­ters and broth­er, much old­er, read aloud to keep me from pes­ter­ing them; my moth­er read me a sto­ry every day, usu­al­ly a chil­dren’s clas­sic, and my father read from the four news­pa­pers he got through every evening. Then, of course, it was Uncle Wig­gi­ly at bed­time.

So I arrived in the first grade, lit­er­ate, with a curi­ous cul­tur­al assim­i­la­tion of Amer­i­can his­to­ry, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapun­zel, and The Mobile Press. Ear­ly signs of genius? Far from it. Read­ing was an accom­plish­ment I shared with sev­er­al local con­tem­po­raries. Why this endem­ic pre­coc­i­ty? Because in my home­town, a remote vil­lage in the ear­ly 1930s, young­sters had lit­tle to do but read. A movie? Not often — movies weren’t for small chil­dren. A park for games? Not a hope. We’re talk­ing unpaved streets here, and the Depres­sion.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

The vil­lage of my child­hood is gone, with it most of the book col­lec­tors, includ­ing the dodgy one who swapped his com­plete set of Seck­atary Hawkins­es for a shot­gun and kept it until it was retrieved by an irate par­ent.

Now we are three in num­ber and live hun­dreds of miles away from each oth­er. We still keep in touch by tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions of recur­rent theme: “What is your name again?” fol­lowed by “What are you read­ing?” We don’t always remem­ber. 

Much love, 


via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Faulkn­er Reads His Nobel Prize Speech

Down­load 20 Pop­u­lar High School Books Avail­able as Free eBooks & Audio Books

The Books You Think Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read: Crime and Pun­ish­ment, Moby-Dick & Beyond (Many Free Online)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.