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

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  1,787 Ratings  ·  262 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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Mick The Bronze Age, The Industrial Age ( I understand that women could be employed to work and earn income but children and nature were exploited, as well…moreThe Bronze Age, The Industrial Age ( I understand that women could be employed to work and earn income but children and nature were exploited, as well as other right side of the brain values), any other age that has an imperialistic or conquest of either resources or territory. Simone de Beauvoir gives these as a few reasons in the Second Sex: man's ability to 'shape' nature to his own use, and therefore, women.
But everything that exists on the earth has two ways of looking at it, there is a 'feminine' view and a 'masculine' view. Obviously, the key is to strive for unity.(less)
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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
May 13, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Apr 26, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Feb 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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Robert Lent
May 16, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
Nov 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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 argume ...more
Aug 11, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Kelli Martin
Jan 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 29, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 08, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: feminists without a cause
Shelves: history, langauge
Some interesting ideas, but the author could do a better job of referencing his sources. Gotta be honest, the gender dichotomy really turned me off. Besides, I'm weary of any man who rants about "the goddess" and gushes about the beauty of "the feminine". Experience tells me that they tend to be shmucks.
Feb 10, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned-books
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
Feb 24, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Dec 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips
Jul 22, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  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
Jun 06, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
For a book that is trying to argue that alphabetic languages and literacy are the reason for issues of sexism and misogyny, this book sure is hard to follow, deviates from the topic for chapters, and is badly composed/edited. I want to agree with the author so badly, but there is a great deal of oversight, especially in non-Western countries and in modern countries where higher literacy rates generally lead to better rights for women (ex: Northern European countries such as Finland and Sweden). ...more
Nov 30, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The word that comes to mind here is 'drek'. I made it through the first chapter - barely. While I was interested to see some new ideas on literacy and gender, I couldn't handle the sloppy science. For example, I would expect someone with a science background to know that there's no such thing as a "female" brain and a "male" brain. Even though he offers a footnote about there being a lot of overlap and most people exist as a blend of the extremes, everything he talks about is presented as one of ...more
Jul 12, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Rachel León
(2.5 stars) Maybe I should give this one 3 stars, but I had a real hard time getting through this one.

I heard about this book at an Ani Difranco show. She'd just read it and told everyone to run out and read it because it had her reeling. I added it to my TBR list and now, two years later, I finally picked it up.

It's a pretty dry read and at one point the author talks about his thesis and all I could think from that point on was how it read like a dissertation. There is a lot of information cr
Maggie Brown
Sep 10, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Shelly - The Illustrated Librarian -
There should be an added category on the Goodreads shelves. In addition to read, currently-reading or to-read, I would like quit-reading.

I can't get through this book. It seems fascinating, the correlation between the creation of alphabets and writing systems with the rise of male power and patriarchies.

However, it's written in a somewhat of an esoteric style that I personally just can't read. I received this book for my birthday over a year ago, I tried, now I quit.
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!

I never finished it. Got sidetracked and had to give it back.
Oct 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  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.
I like it a lot, I think Shlain has some very interesting observations and opinions, but I don't know that I trust his authority on all of the subjects involved.

Favorite Sentence (so far, though I will be impressed if he can top this):

" And like the shepherd (Jesus) was, He herded His followers back across the corpus callosum."

(have to re-find this so I can make sure it's exactly right, and to get the page #, but that's the gist)
Dec 22, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I am officially disgusted enough with this book to be done with it. Sloppy science, sloppy history, the author deforms everything he touches to make it fit his pet theory. Too bad, because I really enjoyed the part about the evolution of human intelligence and shared knowledge, wish it wasn't tainted by being associated with so much bunk.
Feb 14, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Poorly written, half baked theories based on errant history force fed with uninformed feminism. This is a 300+ page equivalent of protesting for "wymyn's" rights while burning a bra.

And he's fascinated with the word "gestault".
Jun 05, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting concept (feminism, chauvinism, and how they relate to the written word), but this guy is an idiot. I'm pretty sure he's a surgeon or something completely unrelated to this field. It's written like a college essay, and there are holes in every argument he conjects.
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Women read more than men. 9 95 Dec 29, 2014 08:02AM  
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The Tyranny of the Alphabet 1 39 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 about Leonard Shlain...
“A medium of communication is not merely a passive conduit for the transmission of information but rather an active force in creating new social patterns and new perceptual realities.” 6 likes
“If the skulls of the people who have been killed in the name of God, Jesus, and Allah in religious wars and persecutions could be piled in one place, they would form an immense mountain. If we tallied the cost in human suffering for the belief in monotheism, we might not think of the other religions of the world as primitive.” 1 likes
More quotes…