Books,  Non-Fiction,  Reviews

Exterminating Literacy Would Turn the World into Goddess Worshipping, Earth Loving Hippies – Doesn’t sound too bad


The Alphabet Versus the Goddess
by Leonard Shlain


“The Alphabet Versus The Goddess” constantly reminded me of a book idea a girl in my senior year AP Euro class recommended, history from the perspective of taxation.  However, instead of taxation, Leonard Shlain examines history from the view of literacy and its effect on the feminine.  He claims that “writing fosters a patriarchal outlook” dissolving the role of the goddess and effectively the rights of women. 

At first this seems to be a wildly outlandish thought derived in order for Shlain to get a third book deal; well that was my first thought.  In the first chapter Shlain proposes many plausible theories, but constantly had me questioning his legitimacy, if not only because he attacks a personal love of mine – writing.  How could an act, an art even, that millions of people perform each day be patriarchal and possibly be the cause for such violence as the Witch Hunts and Vietnam?

Shlain interprets evolution, religions, and historical events through the lens of literacy, sometimes to a point of obnoxious generalizations.  However, he does get his point across by explaining the evolution of hominids and hunter/gatherers to agrarians to cultural, governmental societies.  He puts forth that hunting required communication, as did nurturing, which eventually led us to design written communication. (Shlain makes sure to distinguish between pictorial languages, such as hieroglyphics and modern Chinese, and alphabetic languages, such as those spoken in the West.)  He superimposes the evolutionary timeline and the evolution of writing onto the timeline of religions.  It is this comparison that caused me to abandon my love of writing and believe that Leonard Shlain may actually have a point.  In examining religion along with the development of the alphabet, one sees a distinct trend in the eradication of idolatry and polytheism to word based, monotheistic beliefs – Athena to God.  This was a move from worshiping the image to worshiping the word.  Shlain explains that since writing is primarily done with the right hand, which is controlled by the left-brain, all the left-brain attributes are reinforced – violence, lack of emotion, and linearity.  He continues to map the spread of writing throughout history, pointing out that the Reformation, Witch Hunts, and the Inquisition all occurred at points in time of high literacy.  He then concludes with the pervasion of photography and television, stating that they have reinstated the role of imagery in our society.  Specifically, Shlain points out that typing requires both hands, creating a sense of hemispheric equality to the act of writing.

It was the last chapter particularly, “Page/Screen,” that truly resonated with me.  We are a culture surrounded by images and my generation in particular lives for pictures.  Twentieth Century history was filled with images, the Berlin Wall, the mushroom cloud of nuclear weapons, and the spread of fast food as seen by the recognition of the Golden Arches.  Now, thanks to the Internet, we spend hours viewing images via Facebook and Flickr, while recognizing the little blue bird of Twitter.  And even more recently, news has been disseminated through the web.  BBC News for example has a section entitled “Day In Pictures.”  Yet, there are those who still view women as less of a person, believe women should receive less pay, or women should stay at home.  Although it may not be blatantly obvious in Western culture, there is still a need for Feminism.  That is not to say that Shlain is not right.  The feminine has received greater attention and rights as images re-entered society.  It is apparent in the androgynous style of fashion, the green movement, and perhaps even the reignited be-one-with-the-earth hippie movement.  But literacy will never leave society and I am forlorn at the thought of losing it, because society would not have progressed thus far without it.  Therefore, we cannot forget the importance of the written word and the abstract as we continue to reassert the power of the image, because dominance of any kind, even that of the feminine, should not be supported. As Shlain concluded, “emphasis on one hemispheric mode at the expense of the other is noxious [and] the human community should strive for a state of complementarity and harmony.”

Overall though, Shlain’s book is one that will have you on a roller coaster of opinions.  At first you will dismiss him, then become annoyed and frustrated with his one-sided view of events, and then it will all makes sense and you will feel the urge to lead a movement against literacy.  Perhaps the sudden violent urge towards an abstract thing like writing comes from a form of Stockholm Syndrome, because Shlain has just held your attention captive for 432 pages.  Yet, I cannot help wondering if having just read, which according to Shlain boosts left-brain function has anything to do with the violence.  It would be quite fascinating to get a person’s reaction to having listened to this book on tape versus reading.

“The Alphabet Versus The Goddess” will alter your perception of historical events and even your personal interactions with others via different forms of communication.  Shlain’s writing is approachable and relatable and he is aware of the irony of writing a book about writing throughout all 432 pages.  However, I do not recommend this book for anyone who does not have a basic knowledge of modern European history and comparative religions.  Shlain over simplifies the story of Buddhism to the point where I think had certain aspects been included he may have contradicted himself.  Also, without prior understanding of historical events, such as the Reformation, you will get a completely one-sided view that knowingly ignores key catalysts.  Nevertheless, Leonard Shlain does an excellent job broaching a possibly emotional topic among writers, readers, feminists, historians, and the religious with detail, supported arguments, and sensitivity that could only be done by one torn between the two worlds of the word and image.


  • partialbigots

    Two questions:

    (1) Does Shlain address the fact that the reason most writings were patriarchal might’ve been due to the structures of the societies at the time, and not that writing was prevalent? Also, does he address the role of paintings and sculptures in the societies? Or even the role of architecture in religion (I’m thinking some of the beautiful places of worship across the world)?

    (2) Is Shlain’s Right-brain/left-brain analysis take into account that things like creativity aren’t strictly on one side of the brain but actually involves the whole brain? (And that hand dominance doesn’t indicate brain dominance?)

    I’m gonna hate this book aren’t I?

  • Shley

    Actually, Shlain proposes that writing created the societal structures and not the other way around. He demonstrates this best with his comparison between Christianity in the Middle Ages and after. He does address paintings and other art forms in society heavily. He is always going back and forth between how images and the word were treated in societies.
    Oddly enough I can’t recall him discussing places of worship. That is something to think about though, because most of those gorgeous buildings were built during a time of literacy. However, a great deal of Western Christian buildings were built during the Renaissance, which he said was a time of the image. It’s very difficult to explain, but I think I summarized it at least.

    As for your number 2, I can’t really remember. If he did it wasn’t a big part of the book. Go read it! I promise you’ll be thinking if even it’s about how frustrated you are with Shlain. Some of his theories bothered me and I found doubtful, but that didn’t deter from how I enjoyed reading the book.

  • Valerie

    Great review! I have been wanting to read this book for years and had forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder and for the excellent summary.

  • Robert Beltz

    Good job Ashley. Anyone interested in the evolution of Leonard Shlain’s thought process should read his last, alas, book Sex,Time & Power. Published shortly before his death it explores the origin of the concept of time which was discovered by females as related to their menstrual cycle which paralleled the lunar month. From the understanding of time came the realization of mortality and the need to find answers to the ultimate questions of life. Religion was born from such needs. Various deities were venerated and placated, often with blood, as man’s feeble attempt to influence the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: