Book Review: Alphabet vs the Goddess

Book Review: Alphabet vs the Goddess

Book Review – Definitely recommended. “The Alphabet vs The Goddess – Conflict of Word and Image” by Leonard Shlain with a very provocative historical thesis – that with the introduction of alphabetic writing (left brain masculine) and the moving away from pictorial writing (right brain feminine), we moved to a writing style, the very basis of our culture, that “subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook… giving cultures, especially in the west, a strong masculine thrust.”

What a slap in the face to a woman who loves to read and write! Well there is nothing wrong with being in the more organized left side of the brain. Words and knowledge need a way to be conveyed and it is true that if you use speech or a film to do it, then you have more of an influence of the right creative side of the brain, but there are limits as to how much you can convey.

Also there are limits on how much one can take in. The written word, I believe, allows us to ponder, question, ‘sit with’ information at our own pace. Knowledge comes in many layers at once and we absorb it at the level we are currently in so being able to engage with written words has its’ advantages. The words can be about the feminine, for it was the book “The Feminine Mystique” that sparked a huge women’s movement. And the book “Silent Spring” that sparked the whole ecological earth movement. The written word can be preserved, it can be shared, it can be read again and again. It is a very important evolutionary development.

“Most people believe that the benefits that have accrued to women are due primarily to a high level of education among the populace. As Levi Strauss stated – ‘There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appearance of writing … is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consisting of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part.’ Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.” Shlain

Reading is a linear process and my inability to grasp how life would be without it probably supports his thesis. I know that many things are learned through experience and that is often the greatest teacher, but without the written word I wouldn’t know the great philosophers. Perhaps it is not that the written word has ‘diminished women’s power’ but that our over emphasis on the written word has done that. And as we move from the written word to TV, to film, to gaming, to internet with all the pictorial ways of communicating information, things will balance out. Indeed this is what Shlain presents as hope at the end of the book. “Unlike all the scribes of past cultures, men now routinely write using both hands (on computers) instead of only the dominant one… and is, I believe, an unrecognized factor in the diminution of patriarchy.”

He states that as we moved in this direction women started to gain back their power.

Which brings us to a common research question – Does correlation prove causality?

He instead says he ‘appeals to competitive plausibility’.

As I read the book in more depth I will update my review. I find his thesis fascinating and engaging. Though I believe there are several factors that allowed patriarchy to thrive, this may very well be a plausible part of it.


“Reading words is a different process. When the eye scans distinctive individual letters arranged in a certain linear sequence, a word with meaning emerges. The meaning of a sentence, such as the one you are now reading, progresses word by word. Comprehension depends on the sentence’s syntax, the particular horizontal sequence in which its grammatical elements appear…This process occurs at a speed so rapid that it is below awareness…To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis, and abstraction.” Shlain