I’ve neglected this blog for a month due to other writing commitments, and one of the most rewarding of these was a review essay on Philip Davis’s Reading for Life (Oxford, 2020). I hope this will eventually appear in Literature and Medicine. Pending that publication, I’d like to offer some outtakes, especially Davis’s idea of how in reading fiction and poetry, we have the opportunity to develop what he calls a second life: in his words, “trying to make a second smaller world, a warmer human environment, in which to do better thinking” (7). But let me back up and say something about Davis and what reading means in his project.
Philip Davis is a well-known literary critic whom I first heard of when I read a piece in the New York Review of Books on his biography of George Eliot, which has the fascinating title, The Transferred Life of George Eliot. The word transferred in this title surprises me; I would have expected maybe transformed. Unexpected words figure large in both Davis’s own writing and the way of reading he recommends. The writing he most admires finds ways to wake us up by surprises that force us to take a different perspective. We’re momentarily disoriented by a word like transferred–how can a life be transferred, from what? is that a transitive verb?–and in the space of this disorientation, we have to find ourselves anew. All of that opens up a potential for what I call vulnerable reading. But I keep getting ahead of my story.
Davis is professor emeritus at the University of Liverpool, where he directs the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS), a collaboration across multiple disciplines including psychology and neuroscience. CRILS especially studies what happens in groups organized by The Reader, a charity founded in 1997 by Jane Davis. The Reader runs shared reading groups in multiple settings; Davis lists community centres, schools, hospitals, drug rehab units, dementia care homes, and prisons, among others. Until Covid-19 has endangered the project, there were over 500 of these groups meeting each week in Britain, and more in partner European countries. “Within these local communities,” Davis writes, “literature is read aloud to those [and by those] who for a variety of reasons might not otherwise read it, to give glimpses of how life is or might be, should have been or has to be, in a renewed sense of purpose or dignity or concern for themselves” (7). That, again, could describe what I mean by vulnerable reading, which is why I am excited to have found Davis’s work.
Most of the chapters in Reading for Life describe Davis and one of the readers associated with The Reader reading together different poems and novels that Davis has asked that reader to choose for their meeting. The relationships between Davis and those with whom he reads often go back several years. In these meetings, he tries “to find out what sort of reader [this person] is” (109). And that involves the converse: the reader is learning what sort of reader she is, or to press the point further, what sort of reading is necessary in the life she has led, and what sort of reading can help her to lead a life that reading helps her to imagine living. It’s crucial for Davis that we cannot yet imagine–that’s why it’s not useful to readers to digress into what he calls confessional stories; shared reading groups try to stay clear of these. The point is the yet scarcely imaginable story, and that requires avoiding retelling the too often retold life story.
Davis describes the reading that he seeks to instigate, and that people readily come to, as responding to the “need to create time-out for an inner life, a second world within this world, not in simple retreat from it but for the sake of attempting a better return to it” (13). The second life is Davis most recurring metaphor, as he circles around what it means to read for life. Davis describes one reader who suffers from chronic illness. When she is ill “everything…looks flattened–and garish at the same time”. And then: “there is poetry and a second life for life” (122). Now as I quote that, it’s an empty testimonial. The richness of Reading for Life is being privileged to participate in the shared reading that Davis and different readers do together, in responsive dialogue with each other. We see them bringing a poem or novel to life as it rekindles the life of the reader. And for me, it reanimated my reading of some long neglected poems and novels; the book taught me to read differently.
Ultimately, the second life in literature creates a new space of being: “There is now a third thing, a reader aware between the two, going to and fro in various relations between himself and the book, in that area of imaginative feeling that the book had opened up” (30). Davis makes reading a “to and fro” work of multiple voices. Imagination is what is opened up in the space those voices create for themselves.
I should note that Davis’s readers do not read literary works that speak directly to the content of what they face in their lives, whether that’s illness or a history of abuse, or personal losses. They read works we’d call canonical–John Bunyan George Herbert, Wordsworth, John Clare, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad–but their readings liberate these books from imprisonment within the canon as an academic constraint on reading. The literature has to prove itself in the life of the reader. In my favourite moment, a reader named Georgina describes taking Lord Jim with her to an appointment in the hospital. “I got it out with a sort of ‘OK, come on, show me something then'”. And the book does. Georgina, who has had a difficult life, deserves the last word: “I do not like deliberately ‘positive’ messages, the unconvincing will in them. But to me the negative is not nihilism: it means first of all not being able to make something cheer up or cure all too easily. It is a sort of respect for the real as resistant: the inconceivable, unconsolable, incomprehensible” (222). That’s vulnerable reading.