The Alphabet Versus the Goddess
|LC Class||P211.7 .S57 1998|
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image is a transdisciplinary work of critical theory by American surgeon Leonard Shlain, published by Viking Press in 1998. Shlain begins with the assumption that "when a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabet literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric ones, which manifests as a decline in the status of images, women's rights, and goddess worship....I found this connection compelling and could not let it go until I had superimposed it on many different historical periods and across cultural divides."
Shlain applies this paradigm to 35 pairs of concepts, e.g. Image/Word; Hunters/Gatherers; Aleph/Bet; Dionysus/Apollo; Birth/Death; Illiteracy/Celibacy, 500-1000; Faith/Hate; and Page/Screen, 1945-2000.
Several critics who have felt that Shlain’s paradigm is overly simplistic, nevertheless have found the work valuable and attractive. Kirkus Reviews calls the book, “Continually engaging, although on the whole quite woolly.” “This is one of those annoying books, in which I find some bits gripping and enlightening, and other bits simply untenuously presumptuous….And yet, having put all my reservations on the table, I am still left with a good feeling about some parts of the book.”
Other critics take aim at the scientific basis of Shlain’s claims. Sandra Blakeslee writes in The New York Times, “The human nervous system, he says, was substantially rewired when people began reading alphabets. Never mind that there is no scientific evidence for this claim. Even Dr. Shlain admits that correlations don't prove cause and effect.” And “hemispheric lateralization is undergoing a renaissance. [Brain researchers] now know that the left and right halves of our brains interact dynamically and that specialization, which undoubtedly exists, is a matter of processing style rather than having specific mental traits reside on one side or the other.” 
As one might expect from a book with such a wide historical scope, it contains errors of fact. “The factual errors in the book would take more space to detail than is worth devoting to their listing. A couple of examples must suffice. Purdah (the segregation of women) is said to be a Hindu practice (159); the word is Hindi, but the practice is primarily Muslim. The Aryan invaders are said to have found Sanskrit in India (161)j Sanskrit was the language of the invading Aryans, being sister to the Iranian languages and first cousin to Greek, Latin, and English. The ranks of the Buddha's disciples are said to have excluded women (174); women are reported in Buddhist writings to have been followers of the Buddha during his lifetime.”
"Whatever Schlain's competence, there is so much in The Alphasbet v The Goddess that is slapdash and amateurish...None the less, this is a stimulating read, and the central notion that women have not been fully welcome or at home in western civilisation is, ambiguously, seductive."
- Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. New York: Penguin/Compass, 1998, p. viii
- Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1998, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/leonard-shlain/the-alphabet-versus-the-goddess/
- McEwan, Dorothea. “Book Reviews : Shlain, Leonard, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Male Words and Female Images (Harmondsworth Allen Lane. The Penguin Press, 1998), Pp 464.” Feminist Theology 8, no. 23 (January 2000): 124–26. https://doi.org/10.1177/096673500000002322.
- Blakeslee, Sandra. “Think Tank; Left Brain-Right Brain: The ABC's of Everything,” New York Times, September 11, 1999, Section B, Page 1
- Algeo, John. The Theosophical Society in America, March/April 1999. https://www.theosophical.org/publications/quest-magazine/1172-sp-56014191
- Steiner, George. "Wives, not readers", The Guardian, May 1, 1999