Fuse Book Review: “The Woman Reader” — The Sounds of Silence

In the encyclopedic, fascinating, and intermittently infuriating The Woman Reader, author Belinda Jack argues that we should not fear the battle between paper vs. pixels but value reading and the ways it nourishes a woman’s inner life.

The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack. Yale University Press, 344 pages, $30.

By Debra Cash.

In an age awash with street signs and instruction manuals, schoolbooks and glossy magazines, texting and Kindles, it’s stunning to realize that reading remains a privilege, and that for every 10 illiterates in the world, seven are women. Reading has always been an expression of personal agency and autonomy: if it wasn’t, the American South wouldn’t have passed laws in the eighteenth century forbidding slaves to read and write and imprisoning people who managed to teach them.

On her faculty webpage at Christ Church, Oxford, Belinda Jack lists her academic background as “bookish.” A biographer best known for her writing about George Sand (when Armandine-Aurore-Lucille Dudevant wanted to write in public, she took a male pseudonym), Jack argues that reading has always been a source of utility and pleasure, communal ties and self-realization. In her encyclopedic, fascinating, and intermittently infuriating The Woman Reader, she says we should be not fear the battle between paper vs. pixels but value reading and the ways it nourishes a woman’s inner life, an appetite that leads to “a vision of what life is or could be like,” a perspective that inherently destabilizes the “dominant order.” While Jack’s overarching argument will be familiar as themes found in feminist writings of the past half century, the avalanche of tantalizing details she has assembled from a cornucopia of reference materials will not. Move over, Dora The Explorer. The Woman Reader could just have been easily subtitled Belinda The Researcher.

After a scattershot introduction that ricochets from cave walls to Doris Lessing, Jack settles into a primarily chronological survey that focuses on women readers in the West (her tangential comments on reading in Asian or Muslim cultures are just that, tangents. She should have just narrowed her focus and called it a day).

In her early discussions of women reading in the Middle Ages and beyond, she articulates twin premises that, while essential to the arguments that will follow, are not necessarily convincing. She claims that visual literacy, that is the ability of ordinary people to “read” and interpret stories communicated through church stained glass and architectural carvings, and access to other people reading aloud are tantamount to reading oneself. This is, at best, debatable. No one would say that since I can “read” an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, I can “read” Japanese (or even have the same, full experience of it as those who are alert to all of his cultural references). Listening to reading is a pleasure all its own and may engender the desire to read oneself—that, and the cuddling, is one reason we read to very young children—but one of the salient characteristics of reading to oneself is an ability to control the tempo of the process and re-read passages at will, neither aspects available to an illiterate medieval woman—or for that matter, man—listening to a Bible passage declared from a pulpit.

We know what educated medieval women read—and wrote—at least in part by what they quoted, the private prayer books they commissioned or owned, and how concerned some of the men around them were that this reading and writing business would end with women going out of control. Once Guttenberg and printing come along in the mid-fifteenth century, Jack is on firmly documented ground, and she traces the ways material culture supported reading with everything from the private spaces of kneeling prayer carrel called prie-dieu to the invention and refinement of spectacles and social practices taking us up from salons to Oprah’s book club. There are detours to the worlds of scriptoria (remember that 1976 Xerox ad with the monk declaring the photocopier a miracle?) and paper-making that echo the virtues of proximity along Silicon Valley. Jack indicates that radio, television, and the internet have increased the taste for reading rather than cutting into its market.

A GLIMPSE OF ANOTHER WORLD: THE READER OF NOVELS, 1853, by Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz.

Censorship, of course, rears its ugly head, in ways that constrict the reading options of both genders, but Jack focuses on the male prerogative to establish those boundaries. Her exploration of how women are censored in their reading (and representation) as women in Iran, and how that experience resonates with broader based issues of censorship, gets lost in the controversies over the Bush-era agenda behind Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

But Jack has unearthed forgotten women readers and writers across the ages, each of whom could carry a novel of their own. Who knew there were women scribes in Mesopotamia between 1850 and 1550 BCE? Melania the Younger, an aristocrat turned mother superior in the fifth century and later canonized as a saint, described by a contemporary as “she would go through the Lives of the Fathers as if she were eating dessert”? Byzantine princess Anna Komnene, who wrote a Homeric history of her father’s reign? Nuns with a taste for the naughty parts of the Decameron? Margaret Tyler, who was probably a servant, translating a Spanish romance into English? The BBC should make a miniseries of the life of bluestocking Catharine Macaulay, who started writing her own History of England in 1763. As books become more readily available, the ranks of women readers grow, consuming instruction manuals for hearth and garden, learned religious scholarship, classical epic, specialty broadsides and magazines for girls and ladies, and once they arrive on the scene, up-to-the-minute novels. Jack analyzes fictional female characters in those novels, especially those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, considering how the writers (the male Thomas Hardy, the female Charlotte Bronte) portray female literacy, its pleasures and its discontents.

The images go beyond reinforcing Jack’s narrative. The stone tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine showing her prone with a book in her hands (leading a male friend of mine who visited that abbey to crack on Facebook that that’s what you get for reading in bed) is a world away from the erotic, Japanese print that shows a couple in a chamber where the books are as askew as their kimonos. Jack reproduces images of women reading at their most laced-up and in the nude, reading for themselves, to their children, for prisoners and even, in an image I found especially moving, a slave girl in 1876 outside a rough cabin reading to a circle of children sitting at her feet. It’s worth 1,000 words, but the words matter, and the fact that I can read them does too.

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