Book Review

The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack:  A Guest Review by CarrieS

B-, None

Title: The Woman Reader
Author: Belinda Jack
Publication Info: Yale University Press 2012
ISBN: 978-0-300-12045-5
Genre: Nonfiction

The Woman Reader 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“.

The annunciation and two saintsI 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. 

The Reader of NovelsI 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.


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    It sounds interesting but dry.

  2. 2
    Teri Stanley says:

    I think we should all aspire to be matronly and earnest. I personally would like to embellish my earnest matronliness with a healthy dose of snark, but others might like to go for sweet or, dare I suggest it…bitchy?

  3. 3

    I love that Margaret Cavendish quote. :D

  4. 4
    Allison F. says:

    I came across the following quote (actually a quote quoting a letter) some years back while researching a different topic.  It is from a Mississippi Supreme Court case, Meek v. Perry, handed down in 1858:  “I have formed a firm resolution, which I promise you I will do all in my power to keep. I know you will be rejoiced to hear it. It is, that I am not going to read another novel; and I trust in that Power that doeth all things well. For I found that I cannot be a novel-reader, and anything else. So great an influence have these fictitious tales on my mind, that I cannot be as a rational being, under their influence. “

    It’s been at least ten years since I stumbled on that quote but it was such a powerful statement on the effect of a good novel that I remembered it.  Not an encouraging statement but there it is.

  5. 5
    Laura Florand says:

    Louise Labé was the daughter of a wealthy rope-maker, so her choice of spouse was quite normal. :)  Curious as to B. Jack’s reference to running off with a knight to participate in the Seige of Perpignan, as I’ve typically seen that story credited entirely to Louise Labé‘s agency.  (In the story, she was supposed to have fought under the devise Belle à Soi—Beautiful to Oneself—which emphasizes her own agency to me.) Which isn’t to say I’m right; so many stories surround her, and at that time period we rarely know which ones are true.  And it’s by no means a period I’ve studied beyond the requisite graduate class.  I’ll have to ask some colleagues.

  6. 6
    CarrieS says:

    That would be awesome.  Wikipedia had some stuff on her but it seemed to be a lot of rumor.  If there’s a biography about her that your collegues recommend, let me know!

  7. 7
    Laura Florand says:

    Sigh.  My Renaissance colleague just emailed me that the whole Louise Labé/Siege story is pure fiction. He said people loved the femme guerrière story at the time, that was all.  Like us, I guess. :)  I think I’m going back to fiction. 

    I always have an issue with supposed non-fiction historical books that present stories as confirmed facts; it’s a hugely popular thing to do (more prevalent than fictionalized memoirs, in fact), but it so frustrates me. I want to know whether I’m reading fiction or fact.  I guess it’s my academic/novelist split.  I’ll ask about a biography, but I thought a lot of what we think about her is controversial—I know Mireille Huchton argues she’s a complete invention of a circle of poets, but that’s a controversial claim, too, and I would hate to think it’s true.

  8. 8
    CarrieS says:

    I don’t mind fiction.  I don’t mind history.  I don’t mind historical fiction.  But if someone tells me they are giving me history, and instead they are giving me historical fiction, that is infuriating.  Having said that, I’m almost as interested in the idea that Labe made up this story, or had it made up about her, as in the idea that she might have actually done it.  She sounds like quite the self-promoter.

  9. 9
    Laura Florand says:

    Sorry, Disqus ate my response to this.  This is my frustration with a lot of history books.  This kind of, “Let’s just tell the best story version, ignoring the actual research”, but call it a history book.  If it’s widely accepted by Renaissance scholars that the story is a complete fabrication, I would much rather read something along the lines of, “Popular legend credits Louise Labé with….da-da-da…but most contemporary Renaissance scholars consider the story to be a fabrication, with its first documented recounting occurring in…da-da-da.”  My way takes all the fun out of it, but I gain the most accurate knowledge possible for a superficial exposure to something.  But, although I would love to believe Louise Labé actually had her woman-warrior adventure, it’s even more fascinating to analyze the stories told about her, and who told them, and how they got changed.  (For example, the difference between a story in which a famous beautiful poet, Louise Labé, participated in the Seige of Perpignan under the devise “Belle à Soi” from her own sense of adventure, and the one where she was chasing after a knight, is huge, and fascinating.)  I love the power of story more than the power of fact.  But I want to know.

  10. 10
    AlexHano says:

    This matronly earnest woman so enjoyed this thread, she was moved to do the annoying log in stuff so she could comment.  (Ok, it’s too early in the morning for sustained third person.) 

    “I love the power of story more than the power of fact, but I want to know.” This just rocks.  I’ve been carrying (!) a small torch for CarrieS and her reviews for a long time now, but Laura Florand, you might be my new crush.

  11. 11
    Laura Florand says:

    Group hug? :)

    It’s true, though! Stories can be true without being real or even realistic.

  12. 12
    librarygrrl64 says:

    “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.”

    Preach, Carrie!!!!!!!

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