Alphabet Versus the Goddess, The

by Leonard Shlain (1999)


Here is a book which — according to the number of 1- or 2-star reviews on the first page — roughly 75% of its readers will be predisposed to agree with upon picking it up. The other 25% will more or less reject its central premise out of hand. I am among the 75% who accept Shlain’s hypothesis that alphabet literacy has fundamentally realigned humanity’s brain function. To me it is a compelling, convincing argument that explains many of the large-scale patterns in modern history. It’s an argument that stuck with me for so long after originally reading it almost a decade ago that I recently felt called to re-read it, to see if the ideas held up after some maturing on my part.

To my contentment, the ideas do hold up, though I’ve found upon the 2nd reading that Shlain does himself and his hypothesis a huge disservice by presenting said ideas in such a bloated, disorganized and overreaching book. Really the book could have been about half as long and probably reached (and convinced) a much larger population as a result. In other words, in the sage commentary of Renee Zellweger: “Shut up, just shut up. . . You had me at (Ch. 3).”

Given the first sentence of this review, that most of this book’s audience will basically accept the premise uncritically within the first 100 pages, Shlain’s decision to continue harping on the point for 300 more pages is just plain overkill. The history he presents is engaging and intriguing from his hyper-feminist perspective, but by obsessing over all the details in his attempt to fit them to his hypothesis, he not only exhausts the reader but also loses credibility when he inevitably exaggerates or mischaracterizes certain events in order to fit their roundness into his square hole.

Better to discuss the loose pattern and leave it at that — the archaeological record of vast Goddess-worship, the essentially systematic usurpation of the Goddess by masculine religions at the same time as alphabet literacy swarmed the land, the horrors of the Reformation/Inquisition coinciding almost exactly with the invention of the printing press, etc. — than get lost in the trees as Shlain does.

In his zeal he loses credibility, for instance with his speculation (presented as explanation) of the Black Mary of the Middle Ages, or his insinuation that TV is somehow the cure for books, or when he says that whites now try to imitate blacks because “they have intuited that African Americans are closer to their tribal ancestry and therefore are better guides to this preliterate wisdom than are any of the European American print people.” Yeah no.

The unfortunate effect of these obvious overreaches are to make the cautious reader dubious as to some of his other more erudite claims, such as late in the book when he proposes that the explosion of dyslexia is a result of TV realigning male brains to the more image-based right hemisphere, or his proposition that “the more recently a Muslim nation experienced its print revolution, the more patriarchal it is.” These hypotheses are intriguing if true, there’s just no way you can fully trust Shlain’s research or interpretation due to his apparent zealotry.

Still, I really loved some of the discussions here, especially: the Jews and their revolutionary approach to reading/literacy; Gnosticism and its subjugation by the Orthodox; and the horrors of the witch hunts. Shlain’s general emphasis on the fundamental alteration that reading forces onto our brains seems incredibly important and is unlike anything I have ever seen in a relatively academic text. He does well to make his reader understand just how revolutionary the act of reading was and is — it’s not at all as intuitive as is presumed by 99% of Westerners. Shlain’s research is also impressive; he clearly spent hours/days/weeks reading on the extensive history he presents.

I just really wish he had split this book into two, the first being an introductory version with the important points, and the second being a more optional “Extended Notes” version or something. I probably would have read both of them and given the first 4 stars and the second 2. Many more people would have read the first one, instead of opening this version, seeing how dense it is over 400-plus pages and immediately replacing it on the shelf.

It’s a real shame because the central idea here is hugely significant to how we understand reading, feminism, duality and even the universe. I think its difficult if not impossible to overstate its importance. And I walk the walk; I love books but have a near 5-year-old who I am not instructing in the least with regards to reading (though he is, however, taking a natural interest and learning more or less independently). I want him to preserve his “hemispheric balance” for as long as possible.

And here’s a fact that Shlain omitted in support of his hypothesis (surprisingly since he seemed to grasp at every other piece of minutiae): Finland teaches its children to read later than any other developed nation (age 7), and they also have the best education system of any Western nation.

So should you read this book? The first 100 pages definitely. After that you can decide if you agree or not, then keep reading accordingly at your leisure — a chapter every now and then should do the trick.


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