The Woman Reader is both too much and too little of a good thing. Belinda Jack takes on the monumental task of telling “A story never told before: the complete history of women's reading and the controversies it has inspired” (quote taken from book jacket).
The book beings with prehistory and proceeds through the modern day. My feeling about The Woman Reader that it while it has great scope and ambition, it is too academic in style for the casual reader, and too incomplete for the academic reader. The book is packed with content but low on entertainment. At times I was fascinated and at times I felt like I was doing homework.
By far the greatest treat of the book was meeting women readers (and writers) throughout the ages. For instance, we have Princess Enheduanna, from Mesopotamia, born around 2300 BC. She is the first author we know of in history to sign her name to a work.
There's Louis Labé (c. 1524-66) of Lyon, who ran away with a knight at the age of sixteen “and rode off to fight alongside him at the Siege of Perpignan. Some years later she settled down with a rope-maker, as women who have run away with knights do from time to time”.
There's also Margaret Cavendish, who published poetry and an autobiography in 1666 and left us with this awesome quote:
“I am as ambitious as any of my sex was, or is, or can be, which makes, that although I cannot be Henry the Fifth or Charles the Second, yet I endeavor to be Margaret the First“.
I also loved the inclusion of art. How I wish this book would be printed in a color edition! The art reflected how women's reading has been viewed as an act of piety, an act of familial devotion, and an act of rebellion, irresponsibility, and sensuality. Highlights include The Annunciation and Two Saints, by Simone Martini (right). Painted in 1333, Mary is depicted as being interrupted by the angel while she is reading. Although startled, she carefully keeps her place in the book with her finger, like any devoted reader should.
I was also a fan of the unabashedly torrid The Reader of Novels, by Antoine Weirtz. This painting from 1853, shows a naked woman lying on a bed, reading a book (and looking pretty darn ecstatic about it), while a little devil keeps her supplied with novels (although the title is obscured, one of them seems to have been written by Alexandre Dumas of Three Musketeers fame). The book is worth buying for the art references alone and certainly deserves a high quality, color edition.
There were limits to the book that were unacknowledged and frustrating. In particular, the book focuses almost entirely on Western readers. I understand that an author needs to limit their scope and if Jack had stated that her focus was on the Western world, I would have been content. Instead she presents her book as a global overview, but with only glancing mentions of women in any parts of the world other than The United States and Europe. I know very little about the history of literacy in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, but I strongly suspect that women readers have been important, and their omission was glaring and frankly somewhat insulting.
There are some other odd prejudices as well. For instance, Jack has these startlingly dismissive words to say about oral traditions:
“Stories and poems that had long been enjoyed within the oral tradition were transcribed into many languages…Some of the preciousness fell away in the process. Oral literature was often full of redundant stylistic repetitions – rhymes, clichés, and ornate but meaningless flourishes.”
And she has this to say about Elizabeth Fry, a woman who campaigned to teach literacy and make books available to women in prisons and convict ships in the early 1800's:
“In portraits of the time she appears to be matronly and earnest, but she made things happen and was respected”.
Excuse me, but I happen to be matronly and earnest, and a lot of my role models are matronly and earnest, and why it would be a surprise that a matronly earnest person would get things accomplished is beyond me. Matronly, earnest women rule, people. You heard it here first.
Overall I felt the book was admirable but flat. I like to be entertained when I read non-fiction, and there was little humor here (other than that bit about Louise and the rope-maker). Fascinating people kept popping up, but as soon as they appeared it was time to move on to the next person – I wanted less depth and more detail. I also wished for more context. For instance, in any given period, how many men were literate compared to women? As the chapters draw to a close they become terribly brief – why have a chapter on the present day if all it amounts to is a list of how many books are sold? Further, Jack starts her book with the premise that reading sets women free, but merely listing women readers throughout the ages does not prove her point, however much I might personally be predisposed to agree with it.
I do recommend this book, but I think the best way to read it might be to take each chapter as a jumping off point for finding what you are most interested in. Lord knows I am all of a flutter to Google “Louise Labé”. I also recommend it as an overview of the way tensions between what is acceptable and unacceptable reading have existed since, well, reading has. I would have liked to see more discussion of the history of romance novels, specifically, but this did give a solid historical grounding to the many controversies women readers have faced, and continue to face, in their choice of reading matter.