How to explain the contradiction between these two tropes - in which the most passionate and disinterested reading is attributed to women (a subset of the more general Victorian celebration of reading as a weapon of the weak. . . , and another in which women are reduced either to blocking figures for men's reading or to philistines who value a book for its material properties—whether matching its binding to their dress and decor in the upper ranks, or disbinding its pages for dress patterns and pie wrapping in the lower? One hypothesis might be that women are associated with whichever activity is morally inferior—whether solipsistic overengagement with the text or social display of the book. . . . The culture's oscillation between feminizing the book and the text might also suggest, however, that women are imagined not as inferior to men but rather as higher variance. In relation to printed matter as much as to sex, that is, women gravitate toward either extreme: either the epitome of textual authenticity or the exemplar of bookish superficiality, either Madonna or whore.

Those value judgments may in turn reflect a socio-historical turning point in women's relation to reading. For most of British history, men's literacy rate outstripped women's; in the nineteenth century, however, the latter began to climb more steeply than the former, until around 1900 literacy was actually more diffused among women. . . . The feminization of literacy did not just depart sharply from historical precedent. It also made Britain an anomaly on the international scene, since outside of a few rich countries, men were far more literate than women, as remains the case in developing countries today (Griswold 40). That pattern makes economic sense: investment in boys' education promises payoff in the form of high wages, while teaching girls to read withdraws their labor in the present. It's harder to explain either why this demographics changed in late nineteenth-century Britain, much less why cultural perceptions of reading / anticipated that reversal by more than a century. . . .Once a sign of economic power, reading is now the province of those whose time lacks market value.

Once the feminization of reading in the present-day West is recognized as an anomaly in both time and space, it becomes harder to explain by essentialist assumptions about women's greater capacity for empathy or imagination. Instead, the dependent variable seems to be status: associated with men when it's rare and therefore prestigious, literacy is feminized in societies (like ours) where ubiquity breeds contempt. Outside the West, reading is associated with mobility—both social and geographical; in modern societies, however, it becomes the refuge of those trapped in inte- rior spaces: prisoners, children, housewives. [56-57]


Price, Leah. How to do things with books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. [Review by George P. Landow]

Last modified 1 May 2013