Dr Belinda Jack, Fellow and Tutor in French at Christ Church, Oxford, has given her first public lecture as the new Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College, London. It is a three-year appointment.

Tuesday evening's lecture opened a six-part series titled 'The Mysteries of Reading and Writing' that Dr Jack will deliver over the next seven months.

Gresham professors and other visiting speakers give more than 100 free public lectures each year at various venues.

Speaking about her series, Dr Jack said: 'Reading is a subject which has long fascinated me, not least because of my role in teaching undergraduate students to read "difficult" literature with the greatest attention to detail, structure and internal connections.

'My most recent book, The Woman Reader, is a history of women's reading from ancient times to the present day, and the writing of it deepened my interest in the subject of reading more generally.

'My Gresham lectures will draw on some of the material on which I based my book, including material that I didn't have space to treat, and on the research I am currently undertaking.

'My primary aim will be to encourage informed reading of a wide range of material, which will make us reconsider literature, ourselves, and the society in which we live.'

Dr Jack's first lecture as Gresham Professor of Rhetoric – past post-holders include Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis and Jan Kott – tackled the question, 'What Is Reading?'

She began her talk with a story about two Greek boys who come across an old letter while playing in an attic in a house in rural Greece. One boy, Dimitris, is literate but cannot understand the dialect the letter is written in, while the other, Gregoris, cannot read but is well versed in the dialect.

'Dimitris gazes frustratedly at the words on the page while Gregoris asks impatiently what the letter says,' Dr Jack told her audience. 'Dimitris starts to "sound out" the words and Gregoris encourages him, occasionally correcting a slight mispronunciation. When Dimitris reaches the end of the letter, Gregoris is able to translate its contents into modern Greek and they are then both aware of what the letter says.

'Now, who has "read" the letter? It can't be Gregoris, as he is illiterate. Nor can it be Dimitris, as he doesn't know the local dialect. So we have to conclude that the reading process has been shared and collaborative.'

Dr Jack went on to talk about the 'tragedy' that roughly 20% of the global adult population is illiterate – a tragedy because 'reading greatly extends our understanding of the world and of ourselves'.

Describing reading as 'complex' and language as a 'tricky and slippery business', Dr Jack spoke about how rich and storied idiomatic phrases, such as 'bold as brass', have become clichés.

She added: 'A good many poets, rather than shunning clichés, seek to strip them of their familiarity and re-present them to their readers in all their freshness and, often, curiousness.

'Dylan Thomas’s poem "Fern Hill" (1945) seduced me as a child. As a teenager I was given tape recordings of Thomas reading his own work and the hoarse yet melodious voice further added to my wonder at his language. I enjoyed the mysterious magic of the language – and the world it conjured up.

'Two of the lines of "Fern Hill", which is a poem that celebrates childhood experience in all its immediacy and rawness, are: "And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves / Trail with daisies and barley".

'What Thomas has done is to take one of the most powerful clichés of childhood, the phrase "Once upon a time", and substituted the preposition "upon" with something akin to its inverse, "below".

'A whole lot of things are happening at once. We sense the comfort of the familiar, childish opening of the children's story, at the same time as recognising that the experience that is being described belonged to a different dimension of time, a privileged space enjoyed only by children. Reflecting on the prepositions, the cliché comes alive again.'

Dr Jack concluded her lecture by reading an extract from Alan Bennett’s 2007 novella, The Uncommon Reader, in which Queen Elizabeth II becomes an avid reader after a chance encounter with a mobile library at Buckingham Palace.

Questioned by her Private Secretary as to why 'briefings' are no longer sufficient for her, the Queen responds: 'Briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.'

The lecture was followed by a lively discussion, with questions drawn from an audience of some 200 people. A transcript of the lecture is now available on the Gresham College website, with a podcast to follow. Dr Jack's next lecture, 'Reading for Pleasure', will take place on Tuesday 26 November 2013 at the Museum of London.

This article first appeared on the University of Oxford news page . It is reproduced with kind permission. Image by Ben Andreas Harding under Creative Commons license.