The way out and the way in

Five hundred years ago, only about 11% of the Western European population was literate. Today it is 99%.

But, in 1500, general education and access to books were the leading source of social mobility. Today, that is unfortunately not enough. A non-noble pupil who was lucky enough to learn how to read and write was most likely destined for a great career in a literate profession. Today, that is not enough.

In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Lenù’s way out of poverty and escape from the wretchedness of her native environment were the books she began to cherish quite early on, unlike most of those around her. The books and the access to the education which they provided allowed the young woman not just to escape the determinism of her socio-economic condition, but also to fashion a narrative about herself, her friend Lila and the others around her in a way that helped her make sense of herself and her environment. The books got her out, but they also helped her get into herself, and tell a story about ultimately how the power of narrative can transform one’s understanding of time, space and desire.

In 1960s Naples, as before and since, education was key for lifting one out of poverty. But the power of books, the reward they provide to those who succomb to the magic of piercing the printed sign on the page and pulling the curtain on the other side, brings an existential award that is more enriching than even the social pathways which it gives access to.

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