Why Read? Jeanette Winterson on How Literature can Transform

British writer, Jeanette Winterson (b. 1959), CBE

We read for countless reasons. We read the way we love – with our whole selves. We read with our whole being, but we also read ourselves into being as each book quietly reconfigures the constellation of values, longings, traumas, joys, hopes, despairs, and half-remembered impressions that make us who we are. And we emerge from reading, a different self. That is how reading transforms us.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” Kafla wrote to his childhood friend just as he was setting out on a life of honing axes of words. I have always been struck by the truth of this metaphor, both by the power of the imagery and its profound truth. A good book is indeed a profound transformation. “Books read us back to ourselves… The escape into another story reminds us that we too are another story. Not caught, not confined, not predestined,” says Jeanette Winterson, one of the finest writers and thinkers of our time. See note [1] for more details about Jeanette.

Winterson has ruminated on the subject of why we read, a subject on which many people may think nothing new could be said. How wrong this is as she shows with uncommon splendor of insight in her 1985 classic Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

Winterson begins where books begin — in the life and mind of the author, a fact so basic we have grown blind to its magic: How is it that a single person’s experience can become raw material for something that speaks to generations of strangers?

The trick is to turn your own life into something that has meaning for people whose experience is nothing like your own. Write what you know is reasonable advice. Read what you don’t know is better advice.”

And why do we need better advice? Because life is an adventure filled with unknowns, the fact that we are always cutting our way through the thick forest in an uncertain universe. Reading is a safe vessel from which to explore the unchartered territories. Unchartered territories – the phrase oozes adventure! Winterson continues:

Reading is an adventure … When I was growing up poor in a poor place with a pair of Pentecostal parents who were waiting for Jesus to return and roll up time and space like a scroll, I never thought my life was narrow or my chances bleak. I thought I was Heathcliff, Huck Finn, Hotspur, Aladdin, the Big Bad Wolf. The Fish with a Golden Ring. And later, when I had left home at sixteen and was living in a Mini, I had my favourite books stashed in the boot and whenever I could be in the library, I was there. This wasn’t a fantasy world or escapism — though it was an escape; it was the hidden door in the blank wall. Open it. I opened the book and went through. The escape into another story reminds us that we too are another story. Not caught, not confined, not predestined, not only one gender or passion. It was liberating.”


[1] Jeanette Winterson CBE (1959) is an English writer, who became famous with her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical novel about a sensitive teenage girl rebelling against conventional values. Some of her other novels have explored gender polarities and sexual identity, with later novels also exploring the relationship between humans and technology. Winterson has won a Whitbread Prize for a First Novel, a BAFTA Award for Best Drama, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, the St. Louis Literary Award, and is a two-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award. She has been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

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