A curiously illuminating autobiography of a woman who moved from abused and abandoned toddler to Ph.D. teacher of English and credits it all to ""literacy."" Literacy is in quotes here because as Hamilton (English/Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ., Indianapolis) uses the term, it refers not simply to the ability to read but to how knowledge gained through writing and reading, from fairy tales to bureaucratic records to Proust, can transform a life. To prove her point, she tells the story of her own life, from when she was eight-month-old Karen Agnes Fleming, taken from her mother by Winnipeg's Children's Aid Society to live in a series of shelters and foster homes, until she was three and a half. Isolated, sickly, fearful of men and given to rages, she was nevertheless adopted. Her new mother set aside a part of every morning to cuddle with her on the couch and read, and later encouraged her to write. Hamilton begins to develop the ""reservoir of vicarious experiences"" that she believes prepares everyone to meet life. Her real experiences include teaching elementary school during the day and performing as a stripper at night, marriage, having a child, more degrees, more teaching, until she achieves her Ph.D. and becomes a university professor. Each chapter opens with a brief discussion of aspects of literacy that seem like excerpts from a doctoral dissertation. Moreover, Hamilton may give too much credit to Anne of Green Gables and Remembrance of Things Past and not enough to the adoptive mother who was what psychotherapist Alice Miller characterizes as the all-important ""witness,"" validating a child's intrinsic value. Compelling, nonetheless, and for readers who can stick with it, a more valuable guide to turning around a troubled life than yet another self-help staircase.