I was born in 1974, grew up mainly in Surrey, and studied English Literature at Oxford before going on to University College London, where I gained a PhD.

My first book, Dr Johnson's Dictionary, was published in 2005 and won the Modern Language Association's prize for the year's best book by an independent scholar.

The Secret Life of Words (2008) won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award; it also led to my being shortlisted for the title of Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

My next book also came out in 2008; originally published as How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read, it was given a new name for its paperback edition - Who's Afraid of Jane Austen?

In 2009 I became the theatre critic for the London Evening Standard. I've contributed to many other publications, and you can find a small selection of my journalism by clicking the 'Links' button on this site. In addition, I am a consulting editor for the Oxford English Dictionary.

My fourth book The Language Wars came out in 2011, and that year my first documentary, about the eighteenth-century novel, was broadcast on BBC4. In 2013 I published Sorry! The English and their Manners.

2016 saw the publication of Browse, a collection I edited that contained new essays about bookshops by authors including Alaa Al Aswany, Andrey Kurkov, Yiyun Li, Pankaj Mishra, Elif Shafak, Ali Smith and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

My latest book, published in June 2018, is The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters, or Dr Johnson's Guide to Life.