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Sisters Are Reading It For Themselves,
This review is from: The Woman Reader (Kindle Edition)
In many ways, the history of the woman reader is the history of reading. Women have been reading since the beginning, as far as we can tell. The history of women readers is also a history of women writers, since much of the evidence that women have been reading comes from their also having written.
And although it's a fairly broad(!) history of women readers, the emphasis is on Western women readers. Author Belinda Jack alerts us to the existence of women readers throughout the ages in China, Japan, and the Islamic world, but the bulk of the narrative is about women in ancient Mesopotamia and Greece, then Europe, and North America.
I was surprised to read that women in ancient Babylon were among the scribes who copied works for official use. Fourteen of 185 professional scribes in one list that dates from as early as 1850 BC were women. Being a scribe in the ancient world may not have been an especially prestigious job, but it was important and required extensive training. And apparently there was nothing odd about women doing it.
From Roman times through medieval times, whether a woman learned to read usually depended on her class. Upper class boys and girls learned to read, usually at home. Lower classes did not.
An interesting tidbit is the first known reference (around AD 350) to reading silently, to oneself. In the beginning, reading was done as a social or professional activity, out loud. Reading silently allowed people to read individually, a potentially dangerous and subversive pastime.
Of course, another milestone was the printing press, which allowed mass production of books and pamphlets, leading to a cycle of greater literacy leading to greater diversity of reading materials leading to more readership. Big inroads into literacy took hold in the 15th and 16th centuries, until by the 17th century, most men and women of all classes could read.
What women read was revealing. Mostly, women read what men were reading. But they also read romances and books about gardening and housework and child-rearing. We discover that Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, purchased a French romance novel in the 1480s. The publisher, William Caxton himself, the publisher of the first books in English, used this celebrity connection to advertise the book, even though there is no evidence that Margaret ever read the book, or if she did, that she cared for it, since she never bought another like it.
Belinda Jack covers literacy into the 21st century, in which literacy rates for men and women are much the same through the developed world, but there are pockets of inequality that are quite disturbing, especially in Afghanistan, many Arab states, and in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Woman Reader is a very enjoyable and informative book, with dozens of illustrations that are often as intriguing as the stories behind them.
(a review copy courtesy of NetGalley)