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As a tribute to vital work through the ages, Hannah Dawson’s anthology is more than welcome. But as a resource, it’s rendered hopeless
When I was a student, there was briefly a craze – if that’s the word – for rape alarms. Walking home nervously late at night, you held one tightly in your hand; should the worst happen, you were then primed to blast it in the ear of any attacker. If this sounds quite mad now, all I can tell you is that even then they were a source of (very) black comedy: mine was always without its batteries, usually because I’d “borrowed” them for my Walkman.
The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing is in most ways nothing at all like one of these devices. Where they were disposable, it eyes posterity. Where they only underlined what we were up against, it promises empowerment. What an excellent idea to put in one place some of the most inspiriting, vital and controversial writing about gender inequality you’ll ever read. This is long overdue. But there is a problem here: an own goal so enraging, it makes you wonder if women aren’t sometimes their own worst enemies. Having laboured to put this book together, its editor, Hannah Dawson, and whoever signed off the project at Penguin Classics have undone their good work at a stroke by making it close to impossible for the reader properly to use it. Not only does it have no general index, it does not even have one of its writers. Only by going painstakingly through the list of contents could I be absolutely sure that, no, nothing by Kate Millett is included; when I wanted to reread something I’d enjoyed by Susan Sontag, I ended up flicking through its 652 pages three times. However magnificent its selections, as a resource it is absolutely hopeless. Nothing in it can be found with any speed. No cross referencing may be done with ease. In this sense, it did indeed remind me of a rape alarm. In the heat of the moment, it’s totally inadequate, pathetic, no good at all.
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