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The Woman Reader Hardcover – Jun 25 2012
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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 ReviewSee all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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. Jack delineates these off-kilter standards and shows how even later generations, into the 20th century, were controlled by their social standing and money; the poor and the servant classes either couldn't afford or weren't encouraged to read, because it would promote laziness and sloth.
Another bonus with The Woman Reader is the wonderful art that illustrates Jack's points. From the first, a 1333 depiction of Mary (The Annunciation and Two Saints, Simone Martin) to the last, a photograph of two Iranian women students reading a newspaper in 2000, we are taken on a visual tour of women readers, as well as reading about the books that have inspired (and condemned) women for millennia.
Each chapter brings revelations and interesting detail to the history of what women have read. Seeing what we have struggled against (e.g. Rousseau's belief that women should read to "cultivate their minds" but only with the intent and purpose of pleasing their husbands and his social circle with conversation.) There are Endnotes to enrich your reading and an excellent Index if you are looking for a particular topic within The Woman Reader.
In the present time, where women in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world are restricted from reading, women continue to be willing to take risks for "the sake of reading and for the opportunity to discuss their reading with others. The future of women's reading--like the future of the relations between women and men--looks as challenging, intriguing, contested and lively, as its past." Belinda Jack encourages the Western women to be there for their less fortunate sisters, and to speak up against injustices in education, wherever we see them.
by Laura Strathman Hulka
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
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.
"Since time immemorial, reading has been deemed subversive, disruptive, or threatening to the stability of a relationship, a community, even a nation or a worldwide Church. Momentous episodes of censorship and book-burnings span human history. The specific control of women's reading has often been more private and subtle but motivated by similar convictions about the potentially dangerous influence of reading. Certain kinds of reading material can spark and fuel dissent and revolution, whether small-scale and domestic, or large-scale and political."
It took me ten years or more of reading before I realized that men and women read differently, that society had often repressed the right or the ability of women to read and even to write. That discovery seemed astonishing to me -- my mother had taught me to read using the King James version of the Bible, we read dozens of books together (my father rarely read anything but farming literature), and all of my sisters were great readers. Later I would see my daughter taking to reading with the same intensity and joy that I did. What was sexist about reading?
Jack explains the history of that sexism in clear and compelling prose. It still seems very odd to me, but at least I understand it better. Jack started to learn the differences when she was quite young:
"I was born the year the second edition of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence - Restored Modern Edition was published in the U.K. The earlier trial of Penguin Books under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 had created a furore. The new act allowed for publishers to avoid conviction if it could be demonstrated that a work was of literary merit. This Penguin succeeded in doing. But there had been fierce opposition. At one point the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, had asked if the book in question was one `you would wish your wife or servants to read'. The implication, of course, was the book might be corrupting of sexual morals and lead to relationships that transgressed class boundaries - imitating the central plot of Lawrence's novel."
Jack traces this concern in other cultures; for example, "In the early years of the seventeenth century in Japan women's reading was the subject of lively debate as commercial booksellers in Kyoto started to publish the corpus of earlier fiction at affordable prices. Classics of the Heian period, particularly Ganji monogatari and Ise monogatari, and other works in the courtly female poetic tradition, were deemed wholly inappropriate. Nagata Zensai (1597-1664) was explicit in his criticisms: `... all educate their daughters with Genji monogatari and Ise monogatari. This is doubtless because they want them to compose waka [poetry]. What possible benefit can there be in women composing waka? People simply want to accustom women to lewd behaviour'. "
Jack finds some exceptions in history -- early scribes in Babylonia were sometimes women, for example, and my mother probably was encouraged by her Lutheran religion; Luther believed all people, men and women should be able to read the Bible. "You must ask the woman in her house, the children in the streets, the common man in the market, and look at their mouths, how they speak and translate that way; then they'll understand and see that you're speaking to them in German." The role of the mother as a teacher made it essential that women read and teach their children to read as well.
I am very grateful to my mother, and grateful to Jack, for teaching me not only the joys of reading but also a bit of tolerance and understanding for women and for how hard it has been for them over the ages to find the same joys that I have. It's disheartening to realize how blind I've been to that injustice for so many years.
Robert C. Ross
revised July 2012
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