What if Richard Wright Had an iPad?

As a regular part of the freshman composition classes that I teach, my students are asked to read an essay by Richard Wright called “The Library Card,” an excerpt from his autobiography Black Boy. Today, I asked my summer students if they could imagine not having free and easy access to books, if they would be willing to go to the lengths that Wright did when, as a young man, he wanted to read books by H.L. Mencken.

They did not answer. Most just looked down at their iPads.  Even when I pointed out that there were places around the world where it is still pretty hard for people to get their hands on books on a regular basis, including in their own home countries (most of them are international students), they had trouble putting themselves in that position. To them, books are things that they can have any time they want. For some of them, books are things to be avoided whenever possible. None of them expressed a willingness to go through all the trouble that Wright describes in his narrative.

If you are not familiar with Wright’s story, it takes place in Memphis at a time when it was illegal for a black man to have a library card. His mother had taught him to read, but he had never had much access to books growing up. After reading editorials in the local paper about Mencken’s writing, Wright wants to read the books for himself and see what the fuss is all about. In order to do this, he has to approach one of the white men at his job and ask to use his library card. The man agrees and Wright forges a note to the librarian, acting as though he is there as an errand boy. When questioned, he even claims to be unable to read. Once he has those books in his hands, and the books that come after, he is a changed man. When he realizes that words can be used as “weapons,” that they have power, he becomes determined to master them.

It is because of that determination that we know who Richard Wright is today. But what if he had not had to go to those lengths? What if he had could have had any book he wanted to read in his hand after just a few seconds? Would those words have seemed like weapons?

These are not my questions. They originated with my students, and I found that I had no answer for them. It is not anything that I have ever considered. I would like to think that, had Wright had an iPad (or other ereading device), he would have still been moved by the words that he read. The fact that they were more readily available would not have changed anything. Or, at least, that is what I want to believe.

Since I started teaching these classes, I have read a number of “literacy narratives” that talk about that moment when a person discovers just how wonderful words are. I have written on that topic before, too. For me, that moment was more than 25 years ago, long before the first ereaders hit the market. The iPad was not even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye back then. But things have changed.

People often discuss the downside of ereading, from the impermanent nature of ebooks, to the high cost involved (first the device, then the books). I have never (that I remember) heard an argument against accessibility. That seems to be one of the perks. It is for me. But, now that my students have brought it up, I cannot shake this idea that having books so readily available might actually lessen the effectiveness of the words within.

Would I be reading “The Library Card” with my students today if Richard Wright had an iPad? I hope so. But I don’t know.