Not once in any Star Wars movie does someone pick up a book or newspaper, magazine, literary journal, or chapbook handmade by an aspiring Jawa poet. If something is read by someone in Star Wars, it’s almost certainly off of a screen (and even then, maybe being translated by a droid), and it’s definitely not for entertainment purposes. As early as the 1990s-era expanded Star Wars books and comic books, we’re introduced to ancient Jedi “texts” called holocrons, which are basically talking holographic video recordings. Just how long has the Star Wars universe been reliant on fancy technology to transfer information as opposed to the written word? Is it possible that a good number of people in Star Wars are completely illiterate?
To be fair, finding a science fiction or fantasy universe richly populated with its own indigenous art—and more specifically, its own literature—is rare. As Lev Grossman has pointed out, “No one reads books in Narnia.” Harry Potter himself doesn’t really have a favorite novelist, and most of the stuff Tolkien’s Gandalf reads comes in the form of scrolls and prophecies…not exactly pleasure reading. Fantasy heroes don’t seem to read for pleasure very often, but usually you get the impression that they can read.
Very popular science fiction does a little bit better here, with characters on both Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica being pretty into novels and poetry. Notably, both of these universes have some kind of news media (as does Harry Potter.) And it’s in this lack of news media where the possibility of widespread illiteracy in the Star Wars galaxy starts to become more and more likely….
If you simply stick to the Star Wars films, there is no news media of any kind. Despite the fact that we see cameras circling around Queen/Senator Amidala in the Senate, they don’t seem to be actually feeding this information anywhere. Are they security cameras, like the ones that recorded Anakin killing little tiny Jedi kiddies? This theory achieves a little more weight when you consider that the conversation in The Phantom Menace Senate scene is all about how Queen Amidala can’t verify the existence of a coming invasion. She’s got no pictures, and stranger still, no reputable news source has even written about the blockade of Naboo. Even if we put forth that cameras in Star Wars are only for security and not for news, that still leaves the question of why there are no journalists. A possible answer: it’s because most people don’t read, which means that over time most people in this universe don’t ever learn to read.
“But wait!” you might be saying, “I remember seeing little pieces of text on the screen that Artoo sends to Luke to read. Also there is writing on the tractor beam controls, and people in the ships are looking at buttons with letters on them!” Well, I’d like to point out that even in the case of Luke Skywalker, these letters and pieces of writing are directly related to tasks. Pilots for the Empire are probably functionally literate, because they go through some kind of training academy. However, I think the visual evidence suggests a culture much more reliant upon technology and droids than is immediately apparent.
Uncle Owen needs a droid who can speak “bocce,” and then says something about the binary language of load lifters. Okay, so Uncle Owen needs a translator and someone to do math for him. This doesn’t sound like a guy who has gotten a suitable education. I suppose it’s possible that Luke picked up some reading here and there, but we don’t see any books or any evidence to suggest he’s a fluent reader. It seems like all the characters in Star Wars learn how to do is punch certain buttons to make their machines do what they need to do, and everything else is left up to droids.
In our own culture, pictograms have rapidly replaced words on traffic signs, restrooms, etc. The buttons being pressed by the Death Star control room workers might not even be letters. They might be pictograms representing different functions; functions like “death ray blast” and “trash compact.” Plus, how could those guys read anything in those helmets, anyway?
Attack of the Clones sees Obi-Wan Kenobi go to the Jedi Library, but again, this research facility seems less about books and more about pretty colors, interactive holographic maps, etc. The amount of actual reading even someone like Obi-Wan does is still limited. Now, I imagine Jedi can probably read and are taught to read, as are rich people like Princess Leia and Padme Amidala and Jimmy Smits. But everything in Star Wars is about video chat via holograms, or verbal communication through com-links. Nobody texts in Star Wars!
It seems like this society has slipped into a kind of highly functional illiteracy. Surely, for these cultures to progress and become spacefaring entities, they needed written language at some point. But now, the necessity to actually learn reading and writing is fading away. Those who know how to build and repair droids and computers probably have better jobs than those who can’t. This is why there seems to be so much poverty in Star Wars: widespread ignorance.
The idea of education becoming obsolete due to cultural changes isn’t without a science fiction precedent. In the Star Trek pilot “The Cage,” Vina speaks of a culture that “forgets how to repair the machines left behind by their ancestors.” I’m postulating that the same thing happened with literacy in the Star Wars galaxy. People stopped using the written word, because they didn’t need to, and it slipped away from being a commonly held skill.
And to bring up evidence from the expanded universe material a little more: in those stories even ancient Jedi records exist in the form of holograms. I’d say the switch to visual/audio communication from written communication has been underway for a long time in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s also possible people in Star Wars are simply not as imaginative as we are. Maybe the humans and aliens populating A Galaxy, Far, Far Away are totally boring people who simply used the written word for the purposes of getting their basic culture off the ground – for commerce only, rather than for reflection or pleasure.
The final nail in the coffin which proves widespread illiteracy is how fast stories of the Jedi mutate from a fact of everyday life into legend, seemingly overnight. This is because the average citizen of the galaxy in Star Wars receives his/her/its information orally, from stories told by spacers in bars, farmboys on arid planets, orphans in crime-ridden cities, etc. Without written documents, these stories easily become perverted and altered quickly. This is the same way Palpatine was able to take over in Revenge of the Sith. He simply said “the Jedi tried to kill me” and everyone was like, “okay.”
Padme points out that liberty dies “with thunderous applause,” but really their liberty is dying because most of them can’t read and are powerless and disenfranchised. In fact most of the surviving characters at the end of the prequels are the bad guys, and they can probably read. The Jedi seem to be the most educated people in the prequels, but that changes when they all get killed. This would be like a real life Empire going and burning down all the colleges and schools and killing all the teachers. The academy, the keepers of literacy would be gone. And once that happens, it’s easy for a tyrannical empire to take over, to control the information. Maybe Padme should have said “this is how literacy dies…”
But, what’s sad about Star Wars is that its inhabitants (save for our heroes) seem so complacent and lacking in imagination that this sort of thing was bound to happen in one way or another. In reality, if a whole culture relied exclusively on a group like the Jedi to not only guard justice and truth, but also be the only educated, literate people around, that culture would be seriously screwed up. Meanwhile, these people simply rely on their droids to do everything else.
Obi-Wan may have put a lightsaber in Luke’s hand, but really he and Qui-Gon should have been going around teaching people on poor planets to read years and years prior. After all, hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good book in your hands.
This article originally appeared on Tor.com on October 3, 2012.
Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read, forthcoming from Plume Books in 2015. His writing appears with The New York Times, The Awl, SparkLife, Electric Lit, and elsewhere. He is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.