Speak to Me

By Mount, Harry | The Spectator, February 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

Speak to Me


Mount, Harry, The Spectator


The surprising return of the public lecture

Critics have been predicting the death of the public lecture ever since Johannes Gutenberg got his printing press going in 1450. Why bother negotiating the market-day crowds in downtown Mainz to hear someone read from the Bible, when you can sit by the fire in your parlour and read your own copy? The same argument was made adnauseum about the internet when it first kicked off: who on earth will bother trotting off to an expensive talk when you can see and hear the best lecturers in the world on your computer for free? TED, an American website, offers you hours of fun from David Cameron, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet, and the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

It can even resurrect the dead - Douglas Adams is on their books.

Well, lectures did OK for half a millennium after Gutenberg came along; and now they've survived the internet too. In fact, the curious thing is that the internet has if any - thing reinvigorated the Victorian fashion for public speaking and debates.

This spring, hundreds of pretty provincial towns - Hay-on-Wye, Guildford, Dartington, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, Bath and Oxford among them - will put on their own book festivals, which are essentially a series of lectures. This month, Tom Hodgkinson, co-founder of the Idler magazine, launches a new Idler's Academy in Notting Hill - a sort of Dr Johnson's coffee house meets public lecture hall. There'll be a series of talks, along with lessons on Latin, logic, rhetoric, carpentry and gardening. 'The taste for public lectures and public learning is definitely coming back, ' says that arch idler. 'It's a return to the days when Hazlitt and Coleridge gave lectures in Somerset on Shakespeare and Milton to the fashion - able ladies of the town.' The public lecture answers a need that survives any technological advance: the need for actual human interaction.

This renaissance has come about, I think, because for all its wonders and extreme usefulness, the internet eliminates more daily human contact than any previous invention. Banking, bill-paying, shop - ping, appointment-making - they can all be done, day or night, without the need to vibrate the vocal chords for a second . …

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