Empire of the Word (2009)

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Released 2-Jun-2010
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A series that traces the impact of reading and writing over five thousand years of human history

Eight years in the making, Empire of the Word is a compelling look inside the act of reading and traces its impact on more than five thousand years of human history. Introduced and narrated by one of the world’s great readers, Canadian writer Alberto Manguel, the series traces reading’s origins; examines how we learn to read; exposes censors’ attempts to prevent our reading; and finally, proposes what the future might hold for this most human of creative acts.

Empire of the Word will tell us its narrative in a mesmerizing style. Each episode shares the history of reading by introducing us to the fascinating characters that populate the grand story. We meet Martin Luther being marched into Wartburg Castle in the Sixteenth Century, where he will translate the Bible into German for the first time. We are also introduced to contemporary characters such as Barbara Taylor, an adult illiterate living in Toronto and fighting to learn how to read. Some characters we meet live in danger, such as Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, whose writing has inflamed passions in the Indian sub-continent. Blending potent re-enactment with real life stories and illustrated with stock footage and powerful Computer Generated Images, the series is a dramatic and engaging look across the Empire of the Word.

Filmed in fifteen countries, Empire of the Word is an ambitious television documentary series in the grand tradition of the BBC’s Planet Earth, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Writer and Director Mark Johnston was inspired by Adrian Malone (who created Cosmos and The Ascent of Man) while they worked together on Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World (PBS/BBC). Like these series, Empire of the Word will be must-see television for a broad audience about how reading is at the heart of human existence.

Empire of the Word is built upon the ageless struggle between individual readers and the forces lined up against them. Reading has been characterized by this never-ending struggle for the self-determination of readers. Crushing poverty, organized religion, authoritarian rulers, even our own brains – they can all conspire to keep us from reading. Censorship too is a constant danger to readers. Some submit to the censorship, but others resist. And the reading tools they deploy in their resistance shape the future of reading. For example, readers in the electronic age are hard to stop: they text message; send email; post something on YouTube or Facebook. Technology has become their tool for fighting censorship. But will technology mean the end of reading as we know it? For the past forty years, pundits and academics alike have predicted the imminent demise of the written word. Television, movies, now the Internet – each has been held up as the nemesis of the book. But the written word and its readers have always survived, and today there are more people who can read than ever before. And for some, these new technologies are causing a renaissance in worldwide reading. What will these new forms of reading look like? Millions of Japanese commuters read Ketai Bukai novels, which scroll out on the screens of their mobile phones.

But no matter what shape reading will take in the future, why does this system of small squiggles on a page really have such a hold over us? The answer is rooted in some of our key human impulses. Some would say the drive to read is found in our need to be ourselves. It is the realized individual human self that is unlocked by reading. Empire of the Word will tell us the stories across the ages, the stories of writers and their readers battling to be free to read. It is a story nearly every single one of us shares.

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Directed by
Mark Johnston
Jim McGrath
Genre Year Running Time Format Region Coding
Documentary 2009 208 ? 4
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