I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Reviews HEADS STUCK IN A BOOK

HEADS STUCK IN A BOOK

Angela Bourke
The Woman Reader, by Belinda Jack, Yale University Press, 336 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0300120455 Images of women reading offer an edge: it might be rooted in a child’s anxiety about a mother whose attention is elsewhere, but often it’s an eroticised, voyeuristic feeling that we have caught the subject unawares. Writing culture assumes “the reader” to be male, until marked otherwise ‑ statesmen and churchmen are commonly portrayed reading ‑ but the unsettling of this assumption has been a critical pastime for decades, under the joined banners of reader-response and feminist theory. A text’s meaning changes over time, according to the culture where it is read and understood, and according to who reads it. If that person is a woman, the meaning may become excitingly unpredictable, not because women are capricious, or any more so than men, but because little in our education, even if we are women, has prepared us for how anyone but a white, northern hemisphere, heterosexual male, will read. Three men photographed reading in the devastated library of Holland House, Kensington after an air raid in 1940 had turned their backs to the camera, and to each other. They were unavailable, legitimately embarked on private journeys between the pages. Women, though, are supposed to be available: presentable to the gaze of others and alert to others’ needs. A woman reading is in a world of her own, and a look around the reading room of the National Library of Ireland confirms that, unlike almost any other activity she may indulge in in public, a woman is free to wear whatever she likes to read. In private, as many artists have observed, she is free to wear nothing at all, so in Japanese prints as in European paintings, nakedness and disarray can suggest the intimate, undisciplined, nature of what a woman is doing while she’s reading. The unease this causes is compounded by what she’s not doing: clearly, she’s not doing housework, or taking care of others. Men have worried for centuries that a woman who reads may question their authority, or their sexual prowess. Every year, art calendar publishers Catch, in London and the Netherlands, and Pomegranate in the US, produce “Reading Woman” calendars, with high quality reproductions of images from many sources, of women reading books. They sell well, if amazon.co.uk is anything to go by: it shows forty-seven results for “Reading Woman Calendar”. Museums…

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