On the burning of books

Stories are invisible, portable, private, personal possessions.

Where did that come from? Now I remember – Jeanette Winterson and a story she tells about books in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2012) This is a true story. If you think your parents are dreadful you really need to read Why Be Happy, together with Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) based on the same set of experiences. It’s the story of a little girl adopted by completely the wrong woman, for Mrs Winterson is truly monstrous. If still in the mood for Monstrous Mummies after that, try Jerusalem The Golden by Margaret Drabble (1967).

Jeanette Winterson’s story is about books. As a girl she loves reading, but there are only six books in our house. Mrs Winterson, a religious fanatic, disapproves of and forbids all books because The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.

Loveless, beaten and hungry, frequently locked out by her adoptive mother and forced to sit on the doorstep, she survives by working her way through every single fiction book in Accrington Public Library, starting at A for Austen. She also begins to buy books and hide them in layers under her mattress. Gradually the mattress grows higher until one day Mrs Winterson catches sight of the edge of D H Lawrence’s Women in Love emerging from under it. In a rage, she throws all the books out of the window into the back yard, douses them in paraffin and sets them alight. But:

“I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts … I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language. The books were gone, but … what they held was already inside me, and together we could get away. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do … I can write my own.”

And speaking of memorising and burning of books, if you haven’t already, why not try the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953).

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