Review: Unspeakable Things

Laurie Penny is a feminist.  She’s not a feminist in the way that many dilettantes – and I include myself here – are.  She is a deep thinker on matters of sex, gender, and society.  She’s also a vivid, engaging writer.  She’s compassionate without excusing accidental sins.  Her writing is passionate and analytical at the same time.  Readers always know a person is speaking, but never hear someone excusing poor thought with emotional language.

Her book, Unspeakable Things, largely reflects these brilliant qualities. It’s a fine introduction to feminist thought in our modern, daily, technical world. If you’re interacting with people on the internet, it’s a great book to read.  If you’re thinking about why women’s issues and diversity issues are moving to the core of so many discussions, the book is a must. It has ramifications for hard core techies, too, but that’s not what I mean by “technical world.”

Unspeakable Things expanded my thinking about these issues from the personal to the political.  Other friends and Internet writers have made me understand how often and effectively individuals’ rights are trampled.  Penny showed me how these same attitudes and the mores and laws that they have spawned create our society.  Viewing that society in terms of how those mores and laws control and constrain populations in society was new to me.  It’s the difference between sympathizing with people who have been harassed and seeing that the same attitudes prevent women from taking part in the world. Things is very effective at opening the mind.

Particularly enlightening to me was the discussion of birth control.  That’s a technical innovation that could restructure society, except for the fact that society – people who make it up – are resisting that technical change.  As powerful as the personal stories one often hears are (both sides) – the political issues are at least as important.  Penny brought those to me.

Unspeakable Things is not a perfect book, of course.  There are times when I found the writing repetitious.  Some parts were more opaque than others. I can’t tell if it will make others think new thoughts as it made me do.

Overall, the ideas in here are powerful and the writing accessible.  Strongly recommended.

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