A History of Reading

Course Organiser: Dr Shafquat Towheed
3-7 July

This course explores the nature of reading as it emerged in the late eighteenth century in the western world, and developed in the context of an industrial and then an advanced industrial society. The course will be a combination of two types of seminar. Firstly there will be ‘narrative’ sessions that will explain the ways in which the major aspects of the subject developed over time. Secondly there will be ‘case studies’ that will allow students to explore particular examples of these developments. In addition, the case studies will introduce students to a variety of research resources and methods used by historians of reading.

Course Outline


1 Copyright and the revolutions in reading
2 Case Study: Literacy and Literacy Records


3 Reading Aloud
4 Cheap Reading (chapbooks, broadside ballads) 1770s-1850s
5 Reading and the Rise of the Novel 1770s-1890


6 Case Study: Libraries and Library Records
7 Reading and the Industrial Revolution
8 Case study: Correspondence, diaries, commonplace books and albums 1830s-90s


9 Reading newspapers
10 Case Study: Reading and the First World War
11 Reading in WWII (including Ministry of Information material)


12 Case Study: Paperbacks, films, TV and reading groups in the 1980s and beyond
13 Reading Digitally 1990s-2010

Outcomes for Students

  • Students will have a broad understanding of the economic, social, technological and cultural changes that have taken place in the western world in the last 250 years and which have affected the ways in reading has been practiced.
  • Students will have been introduced to the problems of establishing the nature and extent of literacy in the past.
  • Students will understand the impact of the concepts of copyright and literary property on the availability and price of reading materials.
  • Students will have experience of dealing with both primary and secondary sources in the history of reading.
  • Students will have been exposed to a range of problems and processes in current research in the history of reading.
  • Students will have been alerted to the changes in the nature of the reading experience brought about by the digital revolutions of the last thirty years.

Recommended Introductory Reading

To be updated


Shaf Towheed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1973, and grew up in Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, and England. He received his first two degrees from University College London (BA English, 1995; MA English, 1996), and his PhD, which examined the relationship between copyright law and literature in England between 1880 and 1914, from Cambridge University. Shaf has taught at Nottingham University, the Institute of English Studies (University of London), and since 2006, has been an Associate Lecturer with the Open University. He was appointed to a lectureship in Book History in June 2007, and is currently a Senior Lecturer in the department.