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The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack
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The Woman Reader (2012)

by Belinda Jack

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Eclectic history of women readers, mostly women who were also writers because they were the ones who tended to leave records. Women readers, Jack argues, have been inherently suspect because their minds are inner-directed, inaccessible to others; lone reading “is an inherently antisocial activity and the onus on women has been, and often remains, to be sociable and to facilitate easy human relations.” (I was sad that she didn’t discuss Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, though many earlier defenses of women’s reading and writing Jack covers involved them staying with comfortably domestic topics.) Tidbits: Margery Kempe had to feign illiteracy in the 14th/15th century in order to avoid condemnation, even as she dictated her visions. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb effigy, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Church_of_Fontevraud_Abbey_Eleanor_of_Aquitaine_and_Henry_II_effigies.jpg, shows her reading, which is exactly what I’d want for my own. In 1793, a play based on Richardson’s Pamela opened at the Comedie-Francaise, but the theater was closed down for the first time in its history when the Committee on Public Safety discovered that in this version Pamela was an aristocrat in disguise. Antoine Wiertz’s 1853 painting The Reader of Novels, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Antoine_Wiertz_La_liseuse_de_romans.jpg, shows a naked woman, leaning back in a luxurious, perhaps obscene reading pose (actually your arms get tired very quickly like that, as I have reason to know), with a little devil offering her another book: pretty obvious discomfort with/erotic fascination with the dangers of reading for women! Finally, the Bowdler of Bowdlerization fame was not Thomas, but really Henrietta; her brother took credit for her excision of all troubling content from Shakespeare because it would’ve been inappropriate for a lady to know enough to understand what had to be taken out. Is her lack of recognition irony or poetic justice? ( )
  rivkat | Sep 19, 2016 |
As author Belinda Jack shows us in her book, The Woman Reader, the evolution of women as readers has been a long and uneven one. There is little known about the earliest women readers and most of what is known is due to women's own records of what they were reading. Not surprising, most early women readers were from wealthy families. However, what is surprising is how many of these early readers taught their sons and their daughters to read, recommended reading lists even as theses children became adults thus, in many cases, influencing the ruling of nations, and, in several cases, set up schools for poor girls and women. What is also surprising is how often these women wrote to refute some male writer who claimed women should not be allowed to read due to their 'weaker minds' and how often other male writers wrote in support of women's literacy.

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 certainly make a great addition to the library of anyone interested in the history of women or reading or both. ( )
1 vote lostinalibrary | Jul 12, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0300120451, Hardcover)

This lively story has never been told before: the complete history of women's reading and the ceaseless controversies it has inspired. Belinda Jack's groundbreaking volume travels from the Cro-Magnon cave to the digital bookstores of our time, exploring what and how women of widely differing cultures have read through the ages.

Jack traces a history marked by persistent efforts to prevent women from gaining literacy or reading what they wished. She also recounts the counter-efforts of those who have battled for girls' access to books and education. The book introduces frustrated female readers of many eras—Babylonian princesses who called for women's voices to be heard, rebellious nuns who wanted to share their writings with others, confidantes who challenged Reformation theologians' writings, nineteenth-century New England mill girls who risked their jobs to smuggle novels into the workplace, and women volunteers who taught literacy to women and children on convict ships bound for Australia.

Today, new distinctions between male and female readers have emerged, and Jack explores such contemporary topics as burgeoning women's reading groups, differences in men and women's reading tastes, censorship of women's on-line reading in countries like Iran, the continuing struggle for girls' literacy in many poorer places, and the impact of women readers in their new status as significant movers in the world of reading.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:08 -0400)

"This lively story has never been told before: the complete history of women's reading and the ceaseless controversies it has inspired. Belinda Jack's groundbreaking volume travels from the Cro-Magnon cave to the digital bookstores of our time, exploring what and how women of widely differing cultures have read through the ages. Jack traces a history marked by persistent efforts to prevent women from gaining literacy or reading what they wished. She also recounts the counter-efforts of those who have battled for girls' access to books and education. The book introduces frustrated female readers of many eras--Babylonian princesses who called for women's voices to be heard, rebellious nuns who wanted to share their writings with others, confidantes who challenged Reformation theologians' writings, nineteenth-century New England mill girls who risked their jobs to smuggle novels into the workplace, and women volunteers who taught literacy to women and children on convict ships bound for Australia. Today, new distinctions between male and female readers have emerged, and Jack explores such contemporary topics as burgeoning women's reading groups, differences in men and women's reading tastes, censorship of women's on-line reading in countries like Iran, the continuing struggle for girls' literacy in many poorer places, and the impact of women readers in their new status as significant movers in the world of reading"--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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