THE WOMAN READER. By Belinda Jack. Yale University Press. 336 pages. $30.
The Greeks were among the world’s first literate populations beginning about 2,000 B.C., although reading was far from widespread.
In the next few centuries, both Greek and Roman men, women and even slaves became literate. Sappho was one of the earliest female literary leaders.
However, reading frequently has been frowned on, and not just for women. The Greek verb anagignosko, depending on the dialect, can mean “I convince or persuade” as well as “I read,” which might be why men through the centuries felt that women might, if taught to read, misinterpret their reading to their own interests, leading to misguided views on marriage or morals.
Even Plato viewed literacy with deep suspicion. He trusted the spoken word more than the written, which in his mind could more easily be misinterpreted.
Thus it went through the ages: they could; they couldn’t; they should; they shouldn’t. The Bible as it evolved was less encouraging of women’s literacy and warned of things they should not know.
Christianity fluctuated through the centuries from restrictions on learning for women to encouraging it in order to save their souls. Today, as author and Oxford scholar Belinda Jack notes, some sects again are restrictive of women’s reading lest it demoralize them and turn them from the way of God.
Jack says Ovid would have argued that it is not the author who is the guardian of morals, it is the responsibility of the reader.
The early Muslims encouraged literacy and learning among women because of the excellent example set by Muhammad’s wives. That said, today’s fundamentalist Islamic sects in the Middle East, parts of Asia and Africa have the highest percentage of illiterate females and strictures on schooling for them.
Jack notes that censorship, when aimed at outlawing a certain book, never fared well because people found ways around it. Modern methods of censorship such as the control of media and blocking of the Internet have been unfortunately more successful and damaging.
In her discursive reflections on women and their reading or lack thereof through time, Jack displays the many and varied female literary luminaries. She introduces the reader to female authors who have contributed greatly over many centuries to both literature and the advancement of women’s opportunities and experiences.
In this way she adds amazing depth to what seems an overly simplistic title. Jack sees the future of reading both for women and for men as an ongoing evolution just as, she notes, is the challenging relationship between men and women.
Reviewer Ann Moise, a writer based in Charleston