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Pandora's Books
September 2012

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.

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