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The A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography

The Secret Life of Books

Peter D. McDonald, University of Oxford
Collage from William Kentridge’s 2nd Hand Reading project (2014), using the 1936 revised Oxford English Dictionary, Kentridge Studio
Collage from William Kentridge’s 2nd Hand Reading project (2014), using the 1936 revised Oxford English Dictionary (with permission of Kentridge Studio)

March 14, 15, and 17, 5:30pm

Registration information: all three lectures will be held in person and also streamed virtually, via Zoom webinar. Please register separately for each lecture (see below).

The difficulty lies with reading itself,” the leading book historian Robert Darnton remarked in 1996. “We hardly know what it is when it takes place under our noses.” Detailing its “external circumstances” is one thing; capturing the more elusive process of “inner appropriation” quite another—in fact, he thought the latter “may remain beyond the range of research.” Darnton was thinking mainly about the difficulty of recovering what readers in the past made of the books they read, but his doubts about our ability to describe “the ultimate stage in the communication circuit” remain as relevant for multimedia readers today.

In this three-part series, Peter D. McDonald addresses the challenge of uncovering, and then relating, the fugitive history of reading’s inwardness.

Monday, March 14, 5:30pm: “The History of Sex”: orality, literacy, and the living brain

Tuesday, March 15, 5:30pm: “The Lure of Literature”: books, histories, and the state

Thursday, March 17, 5:30pm: “Scant Cream”: sense, nonsense, and the reader re-made

For more information about the A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography

Peter D. McDonald is Professor of English and Related Literature and Fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is the author of Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing (Oxford, 2017); The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (Oxford, 2009); British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880-1914 (Cambridge, 1997); and co-author of PEN: An Illustrated History (Interlink/Thames & Hudson, 2021).