[LMB] OT: Why we still need paper books

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Wed Sep 21 08:32:24 BST 2011

Paula: Literacy is something even the upper classes couldn't do in most of

John: Besides the problems Eric raises concerning how il/literacy is defined
(1), *every* revision of historical literacy estimates I've ever seen is
upwards -- i.e. we persistently underestimate the literacy of the past.
Steven Justice has done some remarkable work on the late C14 (see his
*Writing and Rebellion*) which implies substantial literacy among the
revolting peasants of the time. Referring to adults, Thomas More wrote in
the early C16 that "four out of ten never knew English yet", which gives a
literacy rate of 60%. And the Puritans, unlike almost all other branches of
Christianity, took literacy very seriously, insisted on it for women as well
as men, and probably achieved British literacy rates of over 90% during the
middle decades of the C17 ; it probably fell again after that until the C19,
but there's not much hard and fast evidence from which safe generalisations
can be made.

Margaret Thatcher ended the collection of proper stats on what was then
called functional adult literacy in the 1980s. I'd be willing to bet the
figure was then rising, and may still be. There are certainly some serious
issues today.

The assumption that the past is full of illiterates, modernity full of
literates, doesn't stand up to any close scrutiny.

(1) When I worked in my brother's burger bar in the 1980s I remember clearly
seeing people at lunchtime who read the menu and happily ordered a burger
and french fries, and seeing the *same* people late on a Friday or Saturday,
umpty pints of beer to the good, come staggering in, survey the illuminated
menu + price board for some minutes, and then ask "where's chips?". I,
becoming drunk, would lose the ability to walk and talk before I lost the
ability to read large block capitals at five feet; these folk lost that
ability while still walking and talking. How does one measure the relative
insecurity of their literacy and security of mine?

John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)
Director of Studies in English, St Catharine's College

General editor, Humanities-E-Books Genre Fiction Sightlines and Monographs

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