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The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (Compass) Paperback – September 1, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0140196016 ISBN-10: 0140196013 Edition: English Language
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Editorial Reviews Review

"Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West," writes Leonard Shlain. "Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word."

That's a pretty audacious claim, one that The Alphabet Versus the Goddess provides extensive historical and cultural correlations to support. Shlain's thesis takes readers from the evolutionary steps that distinguish the human brain from that of the primates to the development of the Internet. The very act of learning written language, he argues, exercises the human brain's left hemisphere--the half that handles linear, abstract thought--and enforces its dominance over the right hemisphere, which thinks holistically and visually. If you accept the idea that linear abstraction is a masculine trait, and that holistic visualization is feminine, the rest of the theory falls into place. The flip side is that as visual orientation returns to prominence within society through film, television, and cyberspace, the status of women increases, soon to return to the equilibrium of the earliest human cultures. Shlain wisely presents this view of history as plausible rather than definite, but whether you agree with his wide-ranging speculations or not, he provides readers eager to "understand it all" with much to consider. --Ron Hogan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The advantages of a literate society are self-evident, but is there a dark side to language? In this extraordinary book, Shlain, a surgeon and the author of Art and Physics (LJ 9/1/91), argues that when cultures acquire literacy, the brain's left hemisphere dominates the right?with enormous consequences. Alphabetic writing, Shlain believes, "subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook" at the expense of feminine values. Focusing on Western cultures, Shlain surveys world history and religion to illustrate how alphabet literacy fosters extremes of intolerance. Indeed, a subtheme of the book is that overreliance on the left hemisphere "initially leads a society through a period of demonstrable madness." Such aberrations as group suicide, religious persecution, and witch-hunting are the result of a dominant linear, reductionist, and abstract method of perception. While admitting that "correlation does not prove causality," Shlain presents a forceful case based on a wealth of circumstantial evidence. An absorbing, provocative, and, ironically, highly literate work that should receive considerable review attention; recommended for most public and academic libraries.?Laurie Bartolini, MacMurray Coll. Lib., Springfield, IL
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Compass
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; English Language edition (September 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140196013
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140196016
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (217 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #50,833 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

123 of 128 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 11, 1999
Format: Hardcover
First of all, I absolutely loved this book. It is a fascinating and beautifully written book, encompassing history, science, and religion studies. I'd like to clear up some confusion and misconceptions about the book, however. (At least, how I see it) The Alphabet versus the Goddess is NOT an argument against literacy or writing. (It's ridiculous to even entertain such an idea, considering the medium we are talking about!) Nor is it an arrogant, sweeping statement of how things are absolutely. It is simply an observation of how male/female values have changed throughout history as the advent of the alphabet is experienced by cultures around the world. The author is always careful to acknowledge that there are other theories, and that this is only his opinion, based on the facts that are presented.
The main premise is not that literacy itself is the "root of all evil" or the sole cause of the oppression of women and feminine based religions. Rather, these things occur when alphabet literacy (primarily a left-brain, masculine function) is exalted and revered to the exclusion of all else. It is when linear, concrete thinking overrides image, the abstract, and intuition that conflict arises. The key is, to put it simply, balance. The feminine and masculine sides are neither "good" nor "bad", just different facets of the mind that need each other to be complete.
I love to read, probably more than most people. It is rare to find me in a spare moment with my nose not buried in a book. And there is no denying the tremendous value and importance the written word has in our lives. Yet I see and understand the necessity of this balance.
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72 of 77 people found the following review helpful By David N on November 30, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a professor of communication, humanities and gender studies, I am fascinated by AVG. My teaching perspective has always been to guide students towards discovering connections between and among seemingly disparate aspects of human communication behaviors. In this provocative book, Shlain offers a three stage analysis for connecting the rise and fall and rise of feminine perceptual processing. The first stage is his review of early, nonliterate cultures in which the goddess was revered and feminine ways of knowing were important aspects in many of these cultures. There is a great deal of interpretive evidence from archaeology and cultural anthropology suggesting that these preliterate cultures were often matriarchal and it was the women who guided and directed the movement, settlement and structure of the culture. Shlain offers a representative view of this evidence. The second stage is the development of written languages and the alphabet. Again, there is a significant amount of evidence that all cultures, when becoming literate, shift to or maintain patriarchal control and Shlain offers a selective review of this evidence. The third stage, or the one we are moving into now, according to Shlain, is the return to feminine ways of knowing, created by the shift in information processing created by the increase of electronic visual imagery in our society. It is this suggestion that creates the most intriguing and provocative part of the book. His argument is based, partly, of his knowledge of the neurological processes of the brain - the researched different functions of the right and left brain. His thesis, that feminine (or right brain) ways of perceiving will again become prominant in our culture, is a profound assertion worthy of continued discussion and examination.Read more ›
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Caroline Garrett on January 5, 2000
Format: Paperback
Dr. Shlain has written a provocative account of the pervasive and often unacknowledged powers of right and left brain functions. Other thinkers, be they artists such as Dr. Betty Edwards in her classic "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" or businessman turned researcher, Robert Monroe in his "Journeys Out of the Body" have explored the effects of this division of labor into right and left hemispheres. Shlain's approach is that of the self-taught socio-historian and anthropologist. His thesis leads to many more possibilities in interpreting the evolution of our civilizations. It is a must read for anyone who wants to grasp a broad perspecitive of human behavior over the millennia. It might be required reading for a Women's Study course ,providing philosophical basis for understanding trends in gender-based roles. Dr. Shlain's insights into the possible cause and effect of collective thinking is startling, fresh, inspired, and controversial. He is making propositions and disavows absolutes in favor of a more expansive viewpoint. Like his book "Art and Physics" Shlain breaks the bonds of tradtional thinking by offering an intelligent and plasuible perspective. His fondness for the written word makes his book a delight to read. In Dr. Shlain's exploration of male and female dominant cultures, he is not porposing that we return to women-rule, if indeed that ever existed, any more than he suggests that we return to the agrarian lifestyle and put our technological advances behind us. His passionate, intellectual process is to understand why societies have evolved as they have and how seeing beneath the surface of influences can free us. The book reveals a genius for synthesis and novelty of thinking.Read more ›
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