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The Woman Reader Hardcover – July 17, 2012
The Amazon Book Review
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From the Author
A Conversation with Belinda Jack
Q: How did you come to write this book?
A: I became interested in just how different men and women's reading has often been. Men have worried since ancient times about what women read but the reverse has hardly ever been the case.
Q: What were the most striking stories uncovered in the course of your research?
A: It's been fascinating tracing women's responses to misogynist writings that they then re-wrote—across the centuries and different cultures. And I was astonished by so-called medical works in the nineteenth century recommending that unstable women should be prevented from reading novels. One eminent physician recommended books on beekeeping!
Q: Is the story essentially one of slow improvement?
A: In some ways, but not altogether. I was struck by just how similar attitudes to women's reading were in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Europe and in Ancient Rome. In both contexts women were encouraged to read only insofar as it provided them with a moral training, or helped them to be good mother-educators. The other parallel was that literate women reflected their husband's social status.
Q: Were you ever discouraged from reading or denied access to certain books?
A: Both my parents were keen readers but my father didn't think I should read stories in which people died—which ruled out a good deal! They used to call me either a "bookworm" or a "great reader." Even when quite young I saw how very different those descriptions were.
Praise for Belinda Jack’s George Sand:
“[Jack’s] approach is psychological but with a light touch. . . . Thorough without being pedantic. . . . A pleasure to read.”—Library Journal
“Focused and engaging.”—New York Times Book Review
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
The discussion of female readers inevitably leads to discussions of what they read, to women as writers, and, after the advent of the printing press, women as publishers. She also discusses the rise of literacy among women, not only in the upper classes, but in the middle and working classes as well which led, inevitably, to the publishing of books aimed exclusively towards them. This was especially true of the novel which, from its earliest beginnings seemed to be more popular with women than men.
This also led, inevitably, to much discussion about the dangers of reading of anything not religious and/or morally instructive on the 'weaker' sex and the fears that indiscriminate reading would lead to bad marriage choices, possibly madness, but, perhaps worst of all, women's ability to lead fulfilling solitary and sexual lives without the need of a male figure to guide them.Read more ›
The introduction is indispensable for in it Jack's discusses what is called Mother's Legacies, one of the first acceptable (to men) writing forms in the 17th Century. This form was often used in a time when mothers did not live through childbirth, a memoir of sorts meant for her children to read.
Jack also writes about the factors that kept women from reading openly for hundreds of years: the Church, well-meaning parents who wanted marriageable daughters, not bluestockings, and husbands, who were uncomfortable with wives who read and thought for themselves.
So many interesting lines of thought are contained here as well. Reading silently, to oneself, as opposed to the common practice of reading aloud, in groups, as a social activity... Reading books "meant for women" (e.g. penny dreadfuls, romances, housekeeping books, books on childrearing) versus reading literature meant to be enlightening... and even historical standards dating back to prehistoric times. Most of the viewpoints are Western-based, although there are some thoughts on women readers in Asian cultures as well.
A constant refrain from men, authorities and the law was that "allowing" women to read was corrupting and would lead to immoral behavior.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I did not order this and would appriciate someone looking into itPublished 23 months ago by Janet M Pevy
The print is very, very small. It runs so close to the gutter it is hard to see. The perfect binding prevents opening the book in a flatter manner to access all the print easily. Read morePublished on April 23, 2014 by Kathleen M. Eaton
This is a well documented history of reading. It addresses particularly women readers from ancient times to the 21st century.
I found the details overwhelming. Read more
She wrote a history of women's reading material. It's very interesting how sometimes women were authors and sometimes they weren't.Published on November 29, 2013 by Ray K.