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Harper Lee on why books matter: "Some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal"

Harper Lee.
Harper Lee.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Harper Lee died on Friday at the age of 89.

When we remember Lee, we'll inevitably look at her life's masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. It's an essential book that generations of Americans have read. But it's also so much more than just the words Lee put on the page and the characters she created. The time in our lives when we read the book, the feelings her words conjured up, the way we imagined the characters looked — though millions of people have read To Kill a Mockingbird, we each have our own personal experience with it.

Of course, that experience isn't limited to To Kill a Mockingbird; we build relationships with all the books we read, and Lee understood this better than anyone.

In 2006, Lee penned a letter to Oprah Winfrey about how she learned to read — and to love it. For Lee, there were no other options or distractions or ways to connect with other humans. Reading was it. She wrote:

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.

Lee continued, explaining how she'd forge a connection with these books, but also explained that technology, and the inevitable elimination of actual books, worried her:

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.

Lee closed the letter by telling Oprah that books were still part of her life. That she and her friends were still connected by the books they read.

"We still keep in touch by telephone conversations of recurrent theme: 'What is your name again?' followed by 'What are you reading?'" She wrote. "We don't always remember."

Read Lee's entire letter at Letters of Note.

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