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The History of Reading

May 9 @ 7:15 pm - 8:30 pm


A Short Introduction

Belinda Jack explores the fascinating history of reading, from the ancient world to our own increasingly digital age.

Today we tend to take reading for granted, but we nevertheless remain some way off from attaining literacy for the global population. And whilst we think we know what reading is, it remains in many ways a mysterious process, or set of processes. The effects of reading are myriad: it can be informative, distracting, moving, erotically arousing, politically motivating, spiritual, and much, much more.

For much of human history ‘reading’ meant being read to. Innovations in printing, paper-making and transport, combined with the rise of public education from the late 18th century on, brought a dramatic rise in literacy in many parts of the world. Established links between a nation’s levels of literacy and its economy have sometimes led to the promotion of reading for political ends, but, equally, reading has long been associated with subversive ideas, leading to censorship through various means: denying access to education, controlling publishing, destroying libraries, and even the burning of particular works. Indeed, the works of Voltaire were so often burned that an enterprising Parisian publisher produced a fire-proof edition, decorated with a phoenix. But reading, a collaborative act between author and reader, can never be wholly controlled.

Belinda Jack is Fellow and Tutor at Christ Church, University of Oxford. Her published works include The Woman Reader and George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large. In 2013, Professor Jack was appointed the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College, London, and over a four-year period gave public lectures at The Museum of London under the general title The Mysteries of Reading and Writing.

At the Knowledge Centre of the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB

Tickets £12 / concessions

This event is inspired by the British Library exhibition Writing: Making your Mark which runs from 26th April to 27th August 2019.

Discover the extraordinary story behind one of humankind’s greatest achievements, through more than 100 objects spanning 5,000 years and seven continents. Follow the remarkable evolution of writing from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs carved in stone and early printed text such as William Caxton’s edition of The Canterbury Tales, to the art of note-taking by some of history’s greatest minds, and onwards to the digital communication tools we use today.

Further information on the British Library website

British Library events


May 9
7:15 pm - 8:30 pm


British Library
01937 546 546


The British Library
96 Euston Road
London, NW1 2DB United Kingdom
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