The Woman Reader - women's reading through history
We've been in touch with Belinda Jack whose book The Woman Reader has just been published by Yale University Press. It tells the story of women's reading from its earliest origins to the present day. Here's what Belinda has to say:
The history of reading and the power of literacy
We take for granted that we can read more or less anything that we choose. We may have to wait until another reader returns it to the library, or until we can afford to buy it, or while it's shipped from another part of the world, but with a bit of patience we'll be able to read it. It's a great privilege and it hasn't always been like this and it isn't now for a large number of men, and even more so women, in many parts of the world.
The history of reading is to some extent the history of civilisation. Literacy brings power and wealth and these encourage rapid change. The history of women's reading, on the other hand, is more distinctive. For all manner of reasons women have been prevented from reading by being denied literacy or by being denied access to certain books. The South African writer Doris Lessing, makes the point very clearly when describing the importance of free access to books provided by public libraries: 'With a library you are free', she writes, 'not confined by temporary political climates.'
For Lessing, who has lived through one of the most dramatic stories of a regime attempting to deny freedom to the majority, access to books is the most fundamental human right. She goes on to say, of the library, 'It is the most democratic of institutions because no one - but no one at all - can tell you what to read and when and how.' The history of the woman reader is in large part one of societies' attempts to control the freedom Lessing identifies, and women's rebellion against those constraints.
Women's stories of reading
Along the way I've uncovered large numbers of wonderful stories about remarkable women. I begin with women's image-making in the Cro-Magnon caves and end with the digital bookstores of today. The Woman Reader introduces determined female readers of many eras--a Babylonian princess who called for women's voices to be heard, rebellious nuns who wanted to share their writings to travel outside their closed communities, confidantes who corresponded with - and questioned - Reformation theologians, New England mill girls who risked their jobs to smuggle novels into the workplace, Quaker volunteers who taught literacy to women and children on convict ships bound for Australia, and many more.
Campaigning for the right to read
Throughout this history there have been remarkable women with a passion for reading and books--women who established libraries and universities, women whose contributions altered the great intellectual debates of their times, women who refused to believe the misogynist arguments against literacy and learning that surrounded them. And in some Muslim countries women are still campaigning for full enfranchisement into reading, and in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women are still fighting for girls' literacy. My book is finally finished - seven years on - but the story isn't.
About the book
This lively book tells a story never told before: the complete history of women readers and the controversies their reading has inspired since the beginning of the written word. Belinda Jack's groundbreaking volume travels from the Cro-Magnon cave to the digital bookstores of our time, exploring how and what women have read through the ages and across cultures and civilizations.
Today, a new set of distinctions between male and female readers has emerged, and Jack explores such contemporary topics as the commitment of mothers vs. fathers to children's literacy, women's vocal demands for censorship in school libraries, and the impact of women readers in their new status as the prime movers in the world of reading.
About the author
Belinda Jack is Tutorial Fellow in French, Christ Church, University of Oxford. She is the author of George Sand: A Woman's Life Writ Large and Beatrice's Spell. She lives in Oxford.
Read an interview with Belinda Jack.