A Highly Readable History of What It Means to Read

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a new short history of literacy and reading by Belinda Jack

For Rene Descartes, ‘Reading all the great books is like a conversation with the most honourable people of earlier centuries who were their authors’, while for John Ruskin, ‘Reading is precisely a conversation with men who are both wiser and more interesting than those we might have occasion to meet ourselves.’ These two opinions are quoted in Belinda Jack’s Reading: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), one of the latest titles in the Very Short Introductions series produced by Oxford University Press. And Jack does a superb job of summarising the history of reading in this slim volume.

Jack organises her exploration of the history and main aspects of reading and literacy into seven short, readable chapters: ‘What is reading?’, ‘Ancient worlds’, ‘Reading manuscripts, reading print’, ‘Modern reading’, ‘Forbidden reading’, ‘Making sense of reading’, and ‘Pluralities’. Each chapter offers some wonderful insights into the way reading has altered and developed over the centuries and millennia. Among the gems I especially relished was Jack’s short history of the invention of the printing press: contrary to

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