In Praise of Literacy

Jeanette Winterson. Amazing. Have you read her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? If not, I am almost jealous of you, because you still have it to savour for the first time. An extraordinary book about an extraordinary life.


I’m glad she chose happy.

She certainly looked happy on Thursday night.

Celia and I trekked from the wilds of Se17 where we have only recently stopped painting ourselves blue, to the self-consciously sophisticated quarter of Notting Hill to hear JW talk about her new book, The Gap of Time, a reimagined version of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.

It was more than a talk, more than a reading, it was a performance. At first the sound system was overwhelmingly loud, but fortunately they got it sorted.

Naturally I want to read the book now, having passed up the possibility to buy it along with my ticket. The trouble is, my bookshelves are groaning. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I cull them, how much I try to restrict my book habit to library copies, there are always disorderly piles of them on every surface.

But clearly, without those regular trips to the charity shop, I shouldn’t be able to get through the door. The books would have taken over.

JW said something wonderful about books on Thursday, how stories allow you to live more lives than you own, how they hold you and give you a space where you can grow. She said how in Shakespeare’s day when life expectancy was short, and much of that life brutish, people went to the theatre, to the Globe, to expand the parameters of their lives.

And it is so true. Think of the places you have been, the experiences you have had through books; the revelations; the heartbreaks; how your emotions have been stirred and the world of the book has been as real, sometimes more real than the place you are, so that on a bus or train it plane, you lift your head and feel disorientated, dislocated when the steamy windows, the commuters playing with their ‘phones are a lifetime away from the story that has been playing out before your eyes.

How astounding, miraculous, that a skill we start to acquire when we can barely tie our own shoelaces, should have such power to transport and transform. A skill that only became widespread with the industrial revolution, when basic literacy was a requirement for the workforce.


You can see why repressive and controlling regimes would want to restrict it. Literacy lets the genie out of the bottle. It connects us with ideas and ideals, with people, with places far from our daily orbits.


Just brilliant.


15 thoughts on “In Praise of Literacy

  1. I’ve only read ‘Oranges’. many years ago, and as I have a similar problem mountain, I’m going to resist these tempting reads.
    I can’t imagine life without books and I devoured anything I could get my hands on when I was growing up. That wasn’t much sadly.

  2. Yes, I’d also resisted buying ‘The Gap in Time’ because of my toppling ‘to read’ pile. But it’s now a must read. She was very inspiring. I’ve also loved libraries since I was small. And then in my early teens I would come home on Satur

    • Books have always been the best think about bus journeys. My ex neighbour don’t have a single bookcase, or bookshelf. It made his flat seem very spacious, but it was odd.

  3. i can see that i need to catch up on some reading. The title already is compelling – why be happy when you could be normal?
    and yes, literacy is such a brilliant gift…. read on!

    • It’s a great book, really thought provoking. If you click the link I put in for. The Gap of Time, it will lead you to her home page and info about her other books, including Why Be Happy

  4. Going to have to add The Gap of Time to the ever-growing pile of titles. I have really struggled for reading time this summer (in fact, it’s fall and I still haven’t finished my summer reading).

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