The gender of reading (2)

Time for an update on the gender of reading post. There have been many comments, some of which on other blogs, so I’ll attempt a summary here. In the original post, I jotted down some thoughts on the function of books in paintings or photos, elaborating on the Dutch sociologist Jolande Withuis’s observation that women are more often depicted in the act of reading, whereas men tend to look away from their books.

Debate in the comment section focused on the eroticism of reading, on voyeurism and perspective, taking off from Helmer’s mention of a famous Dutch photo of a naked Phil Bloom reading a newspaper, and Peacay’s link to Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses.

Jean Burgess at the ever-inspiring blog Creativity Machine today wrote a post comparing Peacay and misteraitch’s two versions of Marilyn Monroe reading. Jean wonders whether the second image is perhaps more voyeuristic than the first. Perhaps we should relate the image to what Monroe is reading — are we, as readers of Ulysses‘s final chapter, not also voyeurs?

Jean links to the weblog Purse Lip Square Jaw which cites a wonderful piece by Jeanette Winterson on the Marilyn Monroe photo. It appeared in a special Guardian feature published on the 26th of April: Solitary Pleasures. To mark the announcement of the Orange Prize shortlist, The Guardian asked writers to choose their favourite picture from the recently published English translation of Stefan Bollman’s Frauen die lesen, sind gefährlich, entitled Reading Women. There are contributions by A. S. Byatt, Ali Smith, Marina Warner and many others, engaging with various issues that occupied us here, such as private and public reading, sexuality, and the emancipating force of being absorbed in reading. Deborah Moggach looks at one of the paintings I also discussed, the reading woman by Pieter Janssens Elinga. And A. S. Byatt has the most interesting opening line of them all:

I love books and most of these paintings of women reading don’t love books.

Also, Roy Booth at Early Modern Whale examines which books men and women in paintings are holding, and what it says about them. Roy discusses Italian paintings of women holding Petrarch’s Sonnets, and looks at the function of Seneca in the Holbein family portrait of Sir Thomas More. Now, why didn’t I think of that! I hope readers will comment with more examples of identifiable books in (early modern) paintings, because this is a fascinating topic.

I close with Monica Ali’s analysis of one of the paintings in Reading Women — in which the woman portrayed is an exception to the rule; she is not reading:

Vincent van Gogh
L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux

What I like about this picture is that she is not “lost in the book”. She is thinking her own thoughts, triggered – perhaps – by what she has just read. I imagine she’s read something with which she disagrees and she’s formulating her response internally. The way she’s resting her head on her hand suggests that she’s unsure of her position; it’s being tested. The book engages rather than confirms her intellect. Monica Ali


3 thoughts on “The gender of reading (2)

  1. Wow. Thanks Kristine. Great summary and good of you to follow up.

    ..are we, as readers of Ulysses’s final chapter, not also voyeurs?

    That’s an insightful comment. If I was to disagree it would only be because I’ve read it something north of 7 or 8 times and one becomes much more of a participant, which itself adds a twist of complicit voyeurism — but this strays too far into the field of conjecture or at least Joyeanism. I may have to throw it onto the table for the Joyceans to examine.

    Something I stumbled across yesterday – I wish these artistic images containing books had a thumbnail page. Sorry, didn’t count the gender spread or subject’s attitude.

  2. Pingback: Läsande kvinnor vid fönster « Tchoupitoulas

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