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The past, present, and future of reading.

Huge Thank you to Ambient Literature, Bath Spa, and everyone else involved who made this talk possible. I have never left a seminar with so much enthusiasm, excitement, questions and ideas. And thank you to Sarah (, who told me it was happening and invited me along. 

Last Thursday I was fortunate enough to attend an academic seminar, for which I was horribly underdressed: ‘The past, present and future of reading’. With a dream to work in publishing I was intrigued and excited to soak up as many opinions and ideas as I could; maybe even share a few of my own.

The brain-child of Tom Abba, Ambient Literature is a two-year research project, funded by the AHRC, and combining the efforts of Bath Spa University, UWE Bristol, and the University of Birmingham.  Launched to ‘investigate the locational and technological future of the book’, it is:

focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices in order to create robust and evocative experiences for readers.

Walking into the room, I knew nothing more about the seminar than the title and was expecting a powerpoint, a speaker and a room of mostly Publishing, Creative Writing, and English students. How wrong I was. While I was not the only student, I seemed to have been the only undergrad in an audience of industry professionals, academics, authors, curators, publishers and more. But, and this I think is a testament to books and the people who love, read, research, and work with them, not once did I feel intimidated or as though I didn’t belong.

The first of three speakers, Dr Edmund King, is a research fellow and lecturer at the Open University. Speaking from a historical perspective, he touched on the horror and moral concern that the cheap press created. Citing concern about the ‘vice of reading’, the moral (religious?) implications of escapism, and then, 3 decades later, similar comparisons, but using a drug-reading analogy, King offered a context within which to explore modern anxieties and illustrated that anxieties have always existed.

Maggie Gee, author and lecturer at Bath Spa University, then transported my captivated self into the present day reading experience. She so eloquently expressed the feelings that I, and I should think many bibliophiles, share when discussing books. The idea that they are both private and individual and yet so available to the masses, the loss of respect for the written word contradicted by the responses she receives upon telling people that she is an author. Her query about the increased ‘shoutyness’ of book covers as a response to ebooks – are books becoming nothing more than beautiful consumer items? All ideas that I can’t stop thinking about.

Finally, the future of reading. Complicated and, for someone, such as myself, who is saddened by the idea of technology infiltrating books and reading, a little scary. However, it was also fascinating and provoked many thoughts and responses. This daunting topic was presented by the final speaker: Dr Alice Bell of Sheffield Hallam University. She argues that we are entering a post-digital world, one where believe it or not, we are greeting digital media and technology with neutrality and scepticism. The act of storytelling is becoming fully integrated with and is also completely shunning technology as a form of expression, and way of sharing. Unsurprisingly, this prompted many discussions about the ways in which new medias are interacting with texts and providing a new foundation for narrative. Questions were asked, and I continue to ask them, about the definition of reading; should there be a new definition? Does reading on the internet, falling down the rabbit hole of hyperlinks and web-based information count as reading? Why? Why not? Is there a difference and hierarchy of reading, is reading a book better than reading a web page for the same information and why?

I found the entire talk fascinating. Questions, thoughts and ideas are still whirling around in my head looking for answers and multiplying into a tangle of potential answers, discussions, logics and thoughts that, as much as I wish I could, I don’t think I will ever be able to successfully translate onto ‘paper’.

While I continue to ponder, I want to leave you with a sentence from ‘The present’ section of the seminar, which I think is perfect and absolutely the best way to approach reading, books, and all that they can offer:

‘good literature is simply the placing of the right words in the right order.’

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