The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image
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The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

4.2 of 5 stars 4.20  ·  rating details  ·  1,346 ratings  ·  204 reviews
This groundbreaking book proposes that the rise of alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. Making remarkable connections across brain function, myth, and anthropology, Dr. Shlain shows why pre-literate cultures were principally informed by holistic, right-brain modes that venerated the...more
ebook, 496 pages
Published September 1st 1999 by Penguin Books (first published 1998)
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vladimir
May 13, 2007 vladimir rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: lateral thinkers; people not afraid to ponder the consequences of literacy
Ok, for bibliophiles, this book is like being told that the parents you've admired and cherished and emulated for so long were drunken, abusive, misanthropes.

But if you tough it out, accept the possibility that this habit, this passion that keeps making life worth living, has had possible side-effects, then the pay-off is astounding.

Shlain provides copious examples for his thesis--that the invention of the abstract alphabets (western and, to some extent, eastern pictograph-alphabets) subtly alte...more
Nandakishore Varma
Dr. Leonard Shlain has an idee fixe (or in more colloquial – and colourful – terms, a “bee in his bonnet”). It is this: alphabet literacy is the cause of misogyny among humanity. He spends 400+ pages of the current book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess , trying to convince us of this path-breaking, explosive idea.

Does he succeed? Sadly, no.

Dr. Shlain starts out well enough:

Of all sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so inconte
...more
Damien
Imagine that you have a rich friend whose Saint Bernard ate a solid gold ring. The friend tells you that you can have the ring if you are willing to go through the dog's poop to get it. That's what this book is like, something valuable within a big pile of crap.

It begins along these lines: early human females needed a lot of iron to give birth to their big brained children, and since they were too weak to hunt the great woolly mammoth needed to get this iron, they offered sex in exchange for wha...more
Janna
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Holly Goguen
Dr. Shlain definitely takes some liberties in his review of history, but he also asks himself questions that you find yourself equally as curious about as he is when he presents them. The historical flux between word and image, masculine and feminine is often filled with reversals of fortune, tales of religious zealotry, attempts to wipe out the past, sweeping changes by rulers, and equally as sweeping changes back by their successors. History is by no means boring when you are looking through t...more
Sherry
This one is in my top books ever read, definitely a 5 star book. Mr. Shain takes us through the history of Western civilization via the lense of the development of the alphabet. He cites the linear sequential alphabet for creating an out of balance left hemispheric lobe -- hyper developed. In the wake of literacy comes religious wars, witch hunts, and misogyny. He demonstrates how each culture becomes extremely left brained -- veering toward hunter/killers, and away from gatherer / nurturers i.e...more
Carlos Alonso-Niemeyer
I am a feminist and lover of women. I admire women as a mysterious entity that never stops fascinating me. This book walks you through the history of women power through out the years. As you understand the constant battle that women have had to fight against a male dominated world, one begins to understand why the written world has become a way to chain them and take their power away.
However, the future will tell us differently. Already there are more women graduating in the US than men. Some o...more
Kelli Martin
My favorite book of all time. I've owned my copy for over 12 years and it's definitely showing it's age. I have read it time and time again, always gleaning a bit more from it every time.

Slain's writing style is almost addicting. This book, like Art and Physics before it, uses parralel ideas/concepts as chapter headings. For examples, chapters such as Reason/Madness, Adam/Eve, Humanist/Egoist, present diametrically opposed ideas as illustrations for his theory that the linear, left brained, more...more
Robert Lent
This book offers anecdotes, but no evidence. He claims that the written word alters people's brains to make them less feminist, but offers no evidence. Where are the experiments? If, as he claims, the media is what matters, and not the content, then you should be able to measure changes in people's attitudes before and after they read certain books. If he is correct, reading feminist books should make people less feminist. The spoken word has much more power to manipulate emotions than does the...more
Anneke
What I appreciate about this book is that it doesn't put itself forward as a sure thing. (Clear to those who read forewords or introductions.) He disclaims very clearly that this is a hypothesis that he feels is very likely true. Naturally, he spends the book trying to support that hypothesis strongly.

Some of the connections he makes feel like he's stretching: linking the binding of Chinese women's feet with the surge of printing at the same time, because they use the same type of material, for...more
Colin
Offers an amazing review of the co-evolution of language and religion with a fascinating and compelling central thesis: the arrival of alphabetic (vs. pictographic) literacy via religious texts (Old Testament, New Testament and the Quran - all with a singular abstract God) brought a paradigmatic leap into left-brained, abstract thought, encouraging the male hunter (killer) mentality to take hold of the collective consciousness. Up until then, world religions generally involved worship of concret...more
Maggie Brown
A blurb by Bart Schneider in "The Washington Post Book World" says this book is a "bold and fascinating investigation of the 'dark side of literacy.' Shlain...makes the startling claim that the advent of literacy ushered in the demise of goddess societies, and shifted the balance of power from women with their intuitive and holistic, right-brain orientation to the more concrete, linear-focused, left-brained men...Both hemispheres of my cerebrum...remained stimulated throughout."

I agree.

Shlain i...more
Barbara
What an interesting hypothesis--that acquisition of literacy goes hand-in-hand, through history, with misogyny. The scope of Shlain's work is truly breathtaking--I would sit here thinking "if 200 would be a theoretical maximum for IQs, Leonard Shlain must have an IQ of 300." Even so, I couldn't help worrying that Shlain was cherry-picking data. Since I'm not a historian, it's hard to know. But, for example, I did notice that Schlain said that the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in...more
Kenny
I am amazed that I was able to force myself to finish this book. It is filled with so much speculation touted as fact, and wide generalization it makes me sick. Even the author himself admits at one point in the book that correlation of events in time is not evidence of causation, and yet that is exactly what he continues to base this book on. I see no factual evidence in this book that the author's thesis is backed up by any of what he says. Again, and again he interprets history in a way that...more
Jinny
Jul 22, 2009 Jinny rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: feminists; anyone fascinated with language; open-minded people interested in spirituality
This is an amazing book.. Shlain has a theory about the process of most of humanity losing contact with the immense importance of the feminine aspect and perspective on our world view. He goes all the way back and before to the early development of language and subsequently the alphabet and the written word. His research is vast and quite stunning. It is not a new book, and I have had it for years--- it is very dense so I am slowly chipping away at it. I heard the author interviewed on NPR.
Jude
stimulating, fun, insightful - and you don't have to buy his theory to enjoy this book. it is that fantasy - a history of the world - of thought and art and language - as if women mattered. starting at the beginning is a good idea, but you can also just open to any of the pairings.
so much history, perspective and wonder-ing in this book. He is all about his theory, but its enthusiasm, compassion and intelligence that define his voice for me - and i am grateful for it.
Marya Pezzano
This book is just fantastic! It should be required reading for every woman. It's a hard read though with much scientific, antropological and greek myth information that I don't ordinarily know about so I have to re-read many paragraphs two and three times to understand it. But when I do, a light bulb just goes off in my head and I feel so enlightened!
Bobbie
Ever wonder what happened to the Goddess Culture of Antiquity? Dr. Shlain explains the demise of the duality in religion at the advent of writing. Before the Bible and the Torah and the Quran became written down, most societies worshipped a male and a female deity... even what is now Saudi Arabia. Men took over the very left brain activity of writing and edged women out of the power position. I recommend this book if you ever wondered what happened to the power of women in the world. It is engag...more
Quinn
This might take some time... it's a fascinating read, but not the kind of thing you can read while tired -- which is when I get some of my best reading in. It very much needs active reading and thought.

I think he has an interesting hypothesis, and does a great job of recapping other theories and anthropologists' suggestions, but sometimes it feels that he's making a bit of a stretch to take correlation and turn it into causation to support his view of an inevitable decline in women's rights due...more
Edwin Heartfulsoul
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess is a paradigm shattering work that will transform your view of history and mind.

Proposes that the process of learning alphabetic literacy rewired the human brain, with profound consequences for culture.

Makes remarkable connections across a wide range of subjects including brain function, anthropology, history, and religion.

Argues that literacy reinforced the brain's linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic...more
Naum
A profound book that asks provocative questions, speculates about link between literacy and misogyny (and human predacity). I just reread and was just as invigorating as the first time I read it years ago.

Though I gave it 5 stars, I can resonate with some of the 1 star reviews that lambasted it for its non-scientific (and parts early on made me wince) content and worse, cherry picking historical data to force a conclusion and/or omitting historical data unfavorable to the author thesis. But I ha...more
Jennifer
I came to this book with high hopes and excitement. The author's thesis sounded intriguing and I looked forward to seeing the archaeological, neurological, and scientific proof that birthed it. However, I stopped reading on page 9.

The citations are weak and the author's generalizations and assertions without proof were coming fast and furious.

In the few pages I read I came across the following uncited and fallacious statements:
"Researchers have never proven beyond dispute that there were ever s...more
Barbara Klaser
If you've ever wondered what happened to the Goddess in ancient belief and myth, why She vanished, as well as why women have been treated so abysmally at certain times in history in nearly every culture, this makes fascinating and disturbing reading.

According to the author, in nearly every culture that has a phonetic alphabet, there was a kind of culture shock that occurred, first when the alphabet was developed and a lot of people became literate, and later when printing became common. These c...more
Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips
Oct 19, 2008 Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips rated it 1 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: No one.
Recommended to Damian by: Pablo Mayrgundter
This book has an interesting thesis: literacy causes misogyny. The advent of literacy, according to Shlain, altered neural pathways in the literate, leading to strengthened "masculine"/left-brained characteristics (as linear thinking, rationality, reductionism, etc.), which in turn, lead to increasing the mistreatment of women.

As I said, interesting hypothesis. Except that his supporting evidence is lacking, misinterpreted, misunderstood, or simply made up at every step along the way. The whole...more
E H
It is rare that I learn from a book, as I see books as being mostly useful for relaxation and entertainment. This book educated me about how the written word brought changes to every society--and brought profoundly negative changes to the lives of women. The author did his research well and was refreshingly feminist in his viewpoints. He was very sensitive about the injustices that have been done to women since the literate era began. I have always known that women had and still have a ways to g...more
Jamie Grove
Ironically, I finished reading a book that posits alphabetic literacy perpetuates misogyny on Women's Day. The premise of this book is pretty straight forward: the invention of the alphabet has created inequality among the genders. The author gives numerous instances in which a polytheistic (often with a goddess or numerous goddess central to its belief system) society became literate and shifted towards a monotheistic patriarchal society. For instance there were numerous examples (ancient Greec...more
Petra Grayson
I found this book somewhat by accident. Clicking around on Amazon, looking for a book and found this as a recommendation. It looked so interesting, but I waited a while to read it. It's a very dense book and took a long time for me to read. Normally I finish a book within 2-3 days. This book took me three weeks. It was packed with so much information, you just can't read it to quickly. In fact, I should have read it even slower in order to stop and look up some of the uncommon words he uses. Any...more
Shawna
This book is provocative, to say the least. Shlain works hard to pull together past and present with explanations based how a culture communicates. The act of writing and speaking is neurologically formative and this book basically explains this and how you can view historical events and societies through a fresh perspective.
I think that the people that gave this book poor reviews for what may appear as over-reaching elements lacking in evidence failed to read the prologue or preface, because S...more
April
i was given this book years ago, and started it, upon fred's recommend, i am picking it up again. the beginning, i loved, and the historical tidbits, i found really intriguing. his premise, is interesting, although a little too 'guns germs and steel' for my taste. i am a bit of an anthropology nerd and i could come up with a dozen examples of how hardcore misogyny exists in many non-literate cultures, so i often felt he was forcing the data (and omitting data that did not fit) to prove his point...more
Danaca
Leonard Shlain certainly had some interesting ideas. I haven't always found his theories to stand up to facts, but they are always intriguing and (usually) pretty well researched anyway. I doubt that the premise of this book - that the development of the alphabet rewired our brains to favor abstract, linear, literal and masculine ideas, which in turn gave rise to patriarchy and misogyny - I doubt that this is the sort of thing that could ever be proved. But he raises an abundant number of intere...more
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The Tyranny of the Alphabet 1 35 Jan 23, 2008 03:45PM  
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Leonard Shlain was an American surgeon and writer, the Chairman of Laparoscopic surgery at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and was an Associate Professor of Surgery at UCSF.
He was a speaker at such venues as the Smithsonian, Harvard University, Salk Institute, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center and the European Union's Ministers of Culture. In 1999, he...more
More about Leonard Shlain...
Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light Sex, Time, and Power: How Women's Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution Finding Balance: Reconciling the Masculine/Feminine in Contemporary Art and Culture Leonardo's Brain: Understanding da Vinci's Creative Genius Leonardo's Brain: Understanding Da Vinci's Creative Genius

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