Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Women Who Read are Dangerous


This book was first published in German in 2005 under the title “Frauen, die Lesen, Sind Gefaerlich” and then in English in 2006 titled “Women Reading”.  This 2016 incarnation translates the German title and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have a look buy it … art and reading … and, with such a title – how could I resist?

The forward, written by Karen Joy Fowler, gives the reader an overview of attitudes through the ages on the though of women reading.

“Should women be permitted to have secret lives?  Should they be permitted, even within the confines of their own imaginations, to be unchaste?  Can they be allowed to imagine themselves as men?  Is reading, in its inextricable essence, a combative act; the woman so engaged being temporarily self-interested and independent rather than other-directed in an appropriately womanly way?

In 1523 the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives proposed careful male surveillance – ‘The woman ought not to follow her own judgment’ he said, as she has so little of it.  She should read only what men deemed proper and wholesome’.” 

Fifty years later, Edward Hake proclaimed that the woman who loved frivolous books would “smell of naughtiness even all her life after”.  If that’s true then that is my cross to bear – I guess I smell of books and naughtiness!

Ms. Fowler has her own image of the modern female reader.  A young girl in her own bed all too soon being told by her parents to turn off the light and go to sleep – this she dutifully does until she hears her parents occupied in another room – at which point she “will make a cave under the blankets and open her book inside the cave.  This girl knows the value of a good flashlight; she learned that from Nancy Drew”.

If paintings are any indication reading for women began to take firm hold in the 17th century and then took root more strongly in the eighteenth.  The introduction gives the reader a little more historical background to reading (for women) and takes us through subjects such as where we read, how we read and, why we read. 

Then the book moved on to my favorite part – the art depicting the act of women reading.  Divided in seven sections with subtitles such as “Blessed Readers” (religious paintings), “Enchanted Readers” (depicting quiet time spent reading in solitude), “Self Confident Readers” (reading as a pleasure of the mind), “Sentimental Readers” (identifying with emotions set out in books), “Passionate Readers” (searching for oneself and the dangers of equating what we read to real life) and, lastly “Solitary Readers” … “once a passion, reading now offers women the possibility of escape”.  Each painting depicted is accompanied by a brief explanation of the artwork as well as its present location. 

The text in each section was as interesting as it was informative, most well known artists were well represented as were some lesser known (and some, to me, unknown) painters.  The art ranged from 17th century paintings to 20th century sketching and photography.  The book itself is beautiful with glossy pages that do the reproductions justice.  It was a pleasure just to flip through the pages and look at the art.

I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed going through this book, but if I’ve left you with the impression that I enjoyed it very much then this review met its objective – I loved it – and it has a deserving home on my shelf along with some of my other art books.

“Reading is a free dream”
          Jean Paul Satre

Of course, how could I resist sharing some of my favorite examples from the book?

 An Old Woman Reading

A Young Girl Reading

Girl Reading

Goodnight Story

The Magic Grammar
Jessie Marion King

Rose Garden

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