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Reading Backwards and Forwards

Venue: Birkbeck 43 Gordon Square

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How do we read now, and how have we read in the past? In eighteenth-century Britain people read out loud, they enjoyed weeping over mawkish sentimental novels and they sniggered over fart poems. They puzzled over tricksy political satires and they thrilled to bloodthirsty war poems. Why did they do this, and what was it that they found valuable or meaningful in these now unfamiliar genres? Evidence of what people think and feel when they read is hard to find, especially when it happened three centuries ago. How might we retrieve histories of reading which are often unwritten or unsaid? What sort of evidence do we use to find something which is lost? This lecture explores the ways in which different research methodologies – archival work, digital humanities, social history - might enable us to retrieve our cultural past. It will also ask what such research might offer to us now. I will explore the ways in which academic questions of reading and interpretation feed into contemporary heritage and cultural debates, in museums, historic houses, and broadcast media, offering fresh perspectives on some of the difficult questions of our own time.


This is a lecture in Birkbeck's Bloomsbury Lecture series, showcasing work by leading scholars.

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