Emma Smith: Why Do We Still Burn Books?

Wed. Mar 22, 2023 6:30pm - 7:30pm EDT
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The Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford University lectures on the history of book-burning from the ancient Mediterranean to Margaret Atwood.

“Book burning for ideological reasons is almost as old as the book form itself,” writes Emma Smith in her new book, Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers. It “is a highly emotive trope and is... compelling for those who burn and those who deplore it. But, in itself, burning a book is irrelevant.” Debating the practical implications of burning books against their symbolic power, Smith lectures on items, including some in the Library’s Treasures exhibition, to examine this peculiar corner in the history of censorship and the talismanic power of books.

To join the event in-person | Doors will open 30 minutes before the program begins. For free events, we generally overbook to ensure a full house. Priority will be given to those who have registered in advance, but registration does not guarantee admission. All registered seats are released shortly before start time, and seats may become available at that time. A standby line will form 30 minutes before the program.

To join the livestream | A livestream of this event will be available on the NYPL event page. To receive an email reminder shortly in advance of the event, please be sure to register! If you encounter any issues, please join us on NYPL's YouTube channel.


Be sure to visit the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library's Treasures, the Library’s first-ever permanent exhibition highlighting our world-renowned research collections. To register and learn more about the exhibition, which features rare and beautiful astronomical books, charts, and artwork, click here


Emma Smith headshot courtesy Emma SmithEmma Smith teaches Shakespeare at the University of Oxford, England. She is the author of This Is Shakespeare (2019), a Times Book of the Year. She works with theatre companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company and is the Sam Wanamaker Fellow at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, for 2023. Her interests–as well as books, of course–are silent films, birdwatching, and fast cars.


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If you have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or suspect you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, please stay home.


In-Person | Assistive listening devices and/or hearing loops are available at the venue. You can request a free ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation or CART (Communication Access Real-Time Translation) captioning service by emailing your request at least two weeks in advance of the event: email accessibility@nypl.org or use this Gmail template. This venue is fully accessible to wheelchairs. 

Livestream | Captions and a transcript will be provided. Media used over the course of the conversation will be accompanied by alt text and/or audio description. You can request a free ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation by emailing your request at least two weeks in advance of the event: email accessibility@nypl.org or use this Gmail template.



Please submit all press inquiries to Sara Beth Joren at least 48 hours before the event: email sarabethjoren@nypl.org or use this Gmail template.

For all other questions and inquiries, please email publicprograms@nypl.org or use this Gmail template.

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LIVE from NYPL is made possible by the continuing generosity of Celeste Bartos, Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos and Adam Bartos, the Margaret and Herman Sokol Public Education Endowment Fund, and the support of Library patrons and friends.

Treasures programming is made possible by the Estate of Helen Sisserson.

Courtesy Emma Smith

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Wachenheim Trustees Room (2nd Floor) The New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, 42nd Street & 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10018