Pandora’s Books

Belinda Jack's The Woman Reader charts the fascinating history of female literacy from Sappho to illegal book clubs in modern-day Iran

The thesis of Belinda Jack’s book can be summed up in one sentence. Reading is power; men had it and women wanted it. In around 300 pages, she presents a chronological and thematic narrative that scans 32 millennia, beginning in the skeleton-laden burial caves of southwestern France, and ending in the traffic-jammed streets of modern Tehran. While academic critics, women and men, have commented that Jack has not broken new ground, for non-academic readers with a passion for social and literary history, among whom I count myself, her book constitutes a revelation. But be forewarned: it’s neither a beach book nor a run-in-the-park iPod download, but an easy-chair-near-a-roaring-fire-on-a winter’s-day kind of read.

Erudite and provocative, The Woman Reader throws new light on some old questions. Are the distinctive inclinations and perceptions of men and women hard-wired or social constructs? Can raw determination override social dominance, or are we mere playthings of circumstance? 

Many books have attempted to unravel this Gordian knot, but Ms Jack has boldly attempted to cut right through it. The book explodes with ideas, facts and images across recorded time, inconsistently arranged by theme and era, subjecting the reader to a dizzying onslaught of material that swings without warning back and forth in time. Yet The Woman Reader is a heroic attempt to uncover the convergent forces of technology, theology, economics, medicine, and human nature that thwart the quest for female enlightenment. 

Literacy, Jack tells us, is purely an accident of birth — a fortunate mélange of historical moment, inherited wealth and leisure, the goodwill of powerful men and women, and proximity to a cosmopolitan city. The lucky few born into this web of riches, she writes, have a fighting chance to become readers and writers. But women, she writes, have been tossed about by the contortions of history. Disease, famine and war have been a boon to women readers, only to be followed by periods in which men reassert their dominance. After the Second World War, the women who worked in the factories, while the men fought on the front, were quickly banished to kitchen and hearth, setting back women’s entry into the marketplace for another decade.

Jack begins her narrative in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC with the birth of standardised language, noting that it took more than a thousand years to produce the first recorded woman reader and author, Princess Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad. It was Greece, however, with its more egalitarian laws and mores, that engendered the most famous woman reader and writer — the poetess Sappho, who composed her work in the company of women friends, inspiring them to read and write, earning her, perhaps, the distinction of founding the first female book club in human history. 

And yet reading has its dangers. Ms Jack shows that the intrinsic pleasure of reading and its potential to stir erotic desire has doomed women to ridicule, alienation and even death. And who was the demonic culprit that set this “evil” into motion? Gutenberg and his “satanic” press. 

Beginning in 1450, the dissemination of holy scripture across Europe, Britain, Asia and all points south and west gave birth to the Reformation, not only opening the portal to an unmediated relationship to God, but spawning individual engagement with the text, and the possibility of subjective interpretation, thereby scaring the living daylights out of the powers that be.

There is no better example than Henry VIII, who, breaking with the Catholic Church but not with its doctrines, succeeded in squelching his sixth and last wife Katherine Parr’s desire to read with friends within the palace walls by burning one of them, Anne Askew, at the stake. Thankfully, Katherine got the final word, publishing her book Lamentations after Henry’s death in 1547, which posits that personal engagement with holy Scripture is the hallmark of a good Christian life. 

But it was the popularity of the novel in the 18th century that made possible the explosion in female literacy. Beginning on the continent, in France and Italy, but translated into the vernacular of England and the Americas, the romantic novel became the rage, evoking male moral disapproval even as its popularity rose. In a letter dated August 17, 1789, Anna Seward, British poet and correspondent, dubbed the novel “sweet poison”, one that corrupts the body as well as the spirit. And she wasn’t alone. Yet canny male writers, such as Samuel Richardson, along with the burgeoning publishing industry, harnessed the trend, proving that women readers were a potent force in the literary mainstream.

Today, in the developed world, female literacy is taken for granted, but the threat of censorship and repression prevails in south Asia, the Arab states, and Sub-Saharan Africa with violent force. Ms Jack tells us that Unesco estimates that by 2015 a fifth of the world’s population will still be illiterate, two-thirds of whom will be women. 

Yet there will always be heroines who risk their lives to grasp the golden ring of literacy. One need not look further than Iranian academic Azar Nafasi, who formed the Golden Needle Sewing Circle, a book club that ran from 1995 to 1997. Knowing that they risked torture, imprisonment, and even hanging, the women would arrive in their burqas with bags full of material and scissors that covered their notebooks and pens. Acting as lookouts, their children would play outside, alerting the women to the oncoming surveillance of the religious police. 

From ancient times to ours, in private homes and public places across the globe, readers of both sexes have craved the companionship of others in search of self-understanding and knowledge. The desire of women readers and writers to move beyond the strictures of time and place, and perhaps to bequeath something to posterity, is an impulse both personal and universal. The global triumph of female literacy may not yet be complete, but in the West the reading habit is today at least as much the preserve of women as of men.

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