Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: "The Woman Reader" by Belinda Jack

In an unprecedented turn of events, it took me three weeks to finish this book. I'm a fast reader who likes to brag about reading at least two books a week, and I was humbled by Belinda Jack's "The Woman Reader." I don't know if it's because the book was non-fiction, dry, written at a graduate-school level, or some combination of the three, but it did not go down easy.

I would have given up on it all together if it wasn't for the subject matter.  I've been going around to my friends describing it as a history of women and literacy, but that's not entirely accurate. It's not about women writers, though they appear throughout the book; and it's not about rates of female literacy in various societies, though those statistics pop up. "The Woman Reader" is, quite literally, about women reading: what they read, how they read, and many extensive analyses of the moral panics and societal attitudes that surround the issue of women reading, from the nascent days of written language to the birth of electronic publishing.

This is the most difficult book I've read since college. If you had to look up the word "nascent," you might have the same complaints I have. It's full of history, dates, big words, and bigger ideas, and it's written in a very dry and straightforward style that doesn't flow that well to a reader like me, who rarely reads non-fiction and hasn't encountered academic writing in several years.

So why did I torture myself for three weeks slogging through this beast? Because "The Woman Reader" is an enormously rewarding and satisfying book, and not just because you get to remember all your SAT words. In a sea of pop-psychology and pseudo-sociology books  that purport to explain complex phenomena in a breezy finished-in-one-plane-ride format (looking at you, Caitlin Moran's "How to be a woman"), "The Woman Reader" tackles a huge subject with the gravity and depth it deserves and never wavers from its assumption of the reader's intelligence. This book knew just where to stroke me. I do so love to be recognized for my intellect.

The book follows a basic format: during this time period, in this society, we know that women were reading this or that, based on this documentation, and we know that the society reacted to their reading in this manner, based on this other documentation. Short answer: women read, and it bothers folks. Throughout Western history, a cloud of anxiety has surrounded the woman reader because her reading promotes an inner life and an inner reality that society can't touch or regulate. Therefore, society tries to restrict her reading to "appropriate" subject matter that reinforces the status quo.

And I hope you like British history, because that's what you're getting! Belinda Jack starts off in Mesopotamia, which is fine because it's the birthplace of writing, and then she touches briefly on the happenings before the rise of the Roman empire, which is also fine because not a lot of people were literate before then. But after that, she focuses almost exclusively on readers in Christian Europe, mentioning the literary accomplishments of the Muslim world only tangentially, and the literary traditions of Judaism and the Far East not at all. After the chapter on reading done in monasteries and nunneries in Europe, she focuses in even tighter on reading in England and stays there until the end of the book.

The Anglo-centric approach of "The Woman Reader" was often infuriating, especially when Jack rushes through Japanese or Chinese literature in a single page and devotes entire chapters to the differences between what British women were reading in the 1500s and what they were reading in the 1700s. I understand that Jack, being a British woman, has greater access to historical documents from her own country and a greater understanding of her own culture. But Japan produced the world's first novel, "The Tale of Genji" by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. There isn't exactly a dearth of analytical material on "The Tale of Genji" or the society and woman that produced it.

A more glaring oversight was Jack's lack of analysis of "The Peony Pavilion," a Chinese play written by Tang Xianzu. "The Peony Pavilion" is right in that sweet spot of women and reading that this book is about: controversial and censored since it's first performance in 1598, it's ignited societal fears about women's rebellion against authority for hundreds of years. And again, there's no lack of material about the play and it's history. 

Why the exclusion? Did "The Peony Pavilion" and "The Tale of Genji" represent too much of a departure from the neat linear history Jack was presenting with her focus on Britain? Did she feel she couldn't include an analysis of these works without an extensive exploration of the societies that produced them? Does she have later volumes of "The Woman Reader" planned that focus on non-Western women's reading? 

I guess what bothers me most about her Anglo-centrism is the same thing that bother me about "The Happiness Project": it's the implied universality of the subject matter. A book called "The Woman Reader" that ignores non-Western or even non-British women readers for a good chunk of its running time is basically saying that the normal woman reader is a Western Christian woman. I'm not going to lie: "The Woman Reader" is a bit racist.

As a reader more aware, if not more familiar, with non-Western traditions of literature in reading, this distracted me from my overall reading experience. Jack was giving me a lot of information, but she was also leaving a lot out. I hope she will do follow-up volumes to this one, because the subject matter is near and dear to me. I'm a reader. In terms of the way I see myself, the list goes 1) human being, 2) female, and 3) reader. I spend more time reading and more time thinking about the things I read than anything else. If I wasn't allowed to read--if I lived in a society that took my books away from me and limited my access to reading material--I sincerely believe I'd go insane. "The Woman Reader" is the first book I've ever read that put my experiences as a reader in a historical context, so I don't want to be too down on what she accomplished, which is a considerable feat of scholarly criticism and analysis.

Still--kinda racist. So final grade: C+.

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