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The Woman Reader Hardcover – July 17, 2012
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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"A lively and erudite history of the many and ingenious covers thrown over women's minds to keep us in the dark, Jack's absorbing story describes and deconstructs the endlessly remade cover versions that men (mostly) have told to women, and to themselves, about the reasons why books and women should be kept apart."―Jeanette Winterson, Times of London
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I found the details overwhelming. Would I remember anything off it in the future? NO,
The sequence of development of rebadging was interesting. Religion had much to do with it as well as commerce from ancient times through Middle Ages.
I did not feel that preventing women from entering the reading world in the 19th century was anything new. Nor were the restrictions on Muslim women. The author takes a one sided feminist view. For example, why shouldn't there be differences between male and female reading preferences?
I also disagree with the fact that that the electronic world had limited effect on reading. Quite the contrary.
Over all, the research is detailed, it offered rudimentary and not very useful information.
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)
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. The book is illustrated and there is one marvelous picture from the 18th c. of a nude woman reclining on a couch, book in hand, while in the shadows a little devil, adds more books to the pile beside her.
Jack points out how even female authors like George Eliot felt that much of what was being written for women was bad for them and that novels should always and only reflect real life. Writers like Dickens were considered lesser talents whose writing was suitable only to entertain chambermaids. I will say here, I found Ms jack's use of this term to describe, I assume, working women an odd one but it is interesting to note that by the middle of the 19th century, literacy among working women was so widespread that books were being written for them and they were being released in serialized form so that they could afford them.
My only real criticism of this book would be about the last part concerning the 20th and 21st c. Perhaps because of the huge amount of materials available to women, she chose instead to discuss the effects of the rise of TV and movies on reading; some, to most of us, obscure women's reading groups; and the publishing industry itself. Among some rather glaring omissions are the popularity of 'chick lit' and YA urban fantasies aimed at the young woman market and the widespread use of ebooks (I found the second somewhat ironic since I read this on my Kobo) and books written exclusively for paperless reading.
Still, in The Woman Reader, author Belinda Jack gives a fascinating picture of women as readers and, by extension, writers from our earliest portraits of women drawn on cave walls right up to the present. Although, it is mainly concerned with women in western culture, there are some interesting references to Asian women readers as well as modern women readers in less liberated societies like present-day Iran. It is well-researched, well-documented, and beautifully illustrated and would be a great addition to the library of anyone interested in the history of women or reading or both.