Meet the keynotes: Professor Philip Davis

In this series of interviews, we will present the keynote speakers at the IGEL Conference 2018.

Professor Philip Davis is Director of CRILS: Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society, University of Liverpool and editor of The Reader magazine.

IGEL 2018 interview – Professor Philip Davis

Portrait: Phil Davis

Professor Philip Davis

What brought you to empirical research on literary reading in the first place?

I suppose ‘empirical’ wasn’t the first word that entered my head. I certainly didn’t want the ‘theoretical’ that has been so much in vogue in my working life since the seventies. I wanted what I would call ‘the individual’ and what I associate with that, ‘the real’. I found that when I was thinking about real individuals and their responses to a poem or short story or novel, then thinking about the literary work and its effect seemed less abstract, more urgent and exciting, humanly.

I then wanted also to think about the other dimension – the underlying mechanisms and processes going on secretly, mentally within serious literary reading: hence my interest in brain-imaging and physiological measures in an attempt to match the feelings with the spikes and lights that partly constituted them at another level. That is why I wanted to collaborate with scientists, psychologists and health professionals, taking my research out of a Department of English Literature, into an institute with interests in psychological wellbeing in the real world.  I wanted genuine experiments, not a mere semi-educated borrowing of the rhetoric of evolution or the vocabulary of brain science.

What brought you to studying the associations between literary reading and mental health?

History, in a sense. Reading serious works could have come under different headings in different times. Say, religion; say, ethics; say, education. I don’t know if I care about the heading, only the thing itself, resilient and defiant despite any context. But I don’t think the institutionalized study of literature in universities in my time has served the reading of literature very well. So here was this new, wider heading – health, wellbeing for people in the wider world. It is not the only name or the best name, and I hate the idea of being merely ‘healthy’ in some hygienic purity, but it is a useful category-framework for now, offering the chance to remember how important serious reading is for humans.

Which topics will you address at the IGEL Conference 2018?

Something of what I have outlined above. My means is this: I will want to show excerpts from a reading group session on film. That is what I mean by empirical: see the thing, as far as possible under these conditions, as it is first of all, in the reality of  the doing and the happening. I am not so interested in the talking about it instead of it, or in retrospective accounts of what people think they were doing. Let’s try to see something more than usual of what they actually did when they read. (But I am always a bit scared of the technology in a new venue: so I hope the films come across well and I don’t have any blips or disasters, mark you.)

What, in your perspective, is the main importance of IGEL?

To help transform the study of literature into what it should be in mental life, emotionally and in terms of unprogrammed thought and spontaneous imagination.

What are your expectations for the IGEL Conference 2018?

I am hoping to meet (and re-meet) people who care as I do, to have some effect on education and policy, to get further ideas/stimulation, and perhaps find friends and collaborators. I don’t much like conferences, to be frank, and I have never attended an IGEL event before, but I am hopeful about this one and don’t want to be disappointed (please, readers).