The Woman Reader Belinda Jack

Publication date:
15 Jun 2012
Yale University Press
344 pages: 235 x 156mm
50 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

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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.

Jack traces a history marked by persistent efforts to prevent women from gaining literacy and to censor their reading. She also recounts the counterefforts of remarkable women - and some men - who have fought back and battled for the educational enfranchisement of girls. The book introduces dissatisfied female readers of many different eras - ancient poetesses disappointed by the limitations of male poets, Babylonian princesses calling for women's voices to be heard, rebellious nuns who wanted to share their writings with others, confidantes questioning Reformation theologians about their writings, famous and infamous wives whose reading provoked their husbands, and nineteenth-century New England mill girls who risked their jobs to smuggle novels into the workplace.

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.

More about this title

• Read a blog article about The Woman Reader, featuring an interview with Belinda Jack.
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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, UK.

"Engaging, lively and vigorous. The Woman Reader is a landmark work that no feminist - or for that matter, general reader - should miss." - Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth

"An utterly gripping history of women and reading, brilliantly conceived and told in depth and detail for the first time. Belinda Jack's remarkable book is destined to be a landmark in its field." - Claire Harman, author of Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World 

"A lively and erudite history of the many and ingenious covers thrown over women’s minds to keep us in the dark, Jack’s absorbing story describes and deconstructs the endlessly remade cover versions that men (mostly) have told to women, and to themselves, about the reasons why books and women should be kept apart. From priests to playboys, East or West, the fatal combination seems to be a woman who is also a reader." Jeanette Winterson, The Times

"In her detailed history of female readers across time and place, Belinda Jack, an Oxford don, argues that anxieties about female readers are mostly a desire to control women’s 'freedom.'" Bee Wilson, Sunday Times, Culture

"The enticing presentation delivers a sustainedly nourishing read. Packed with fascinating material, it holds throughout… Belinda Jack’s detail is consistently rich." Alison Baverstock, The Independent

"Jack has done an impressive job of synthesising the scholarly work on book-history that has radically changed what we know about women’s reading habits through the ages. In her thorough and informative book, she steadily demonstrates that the woman reader has not been nearly such an isolated or exceptional figure, historically, as was once thought." Hermione Lee, The Guardian