Culture, Society, & Behaviour
You are what you read
We connect with each other and ultimately build nations based on what we see in print.
On a typical Fall day Leith Davis found herself browsing the shelves of a tiny bookshop in the misty Welsh seaside village of Aberystwyth. Now a professor of English at SFU, Davis was 21 at the time and on a Rotary Scholarship to study Welsh in the British Isles. After a year abroad, she returned home to Saskatoon to complete her BA at the University of Saskatchewan. But it was that small bookstore in Wales that would ultimately define her research goals for the rest of her life. "I looked around at this room entirely filled with Welsh literature, some written in Welsh, some in English. There was only a tiny shelf for English literature--Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, etc.--they did not even take up the whole shelf," says Davis. "I thought to myself: English has a very different meaning here in this particular small town, in this small country."
That realization was the beginning of a life-long journey, including a PhD from Berkeley (1990), that set Davis on a quest to understand how literature relates to national identity. She was drawn to the work of Benedict Anderson. His 1983 book, Imagined Communities, presented the idea that print culture brings people together into cohesive social units, national communities that identify with each other through literature.
According to Anderson, imagined communities were a product of socio-economic changes in the 17th and 18th Centuries, especially the growth of the print market. To maximize sales, capitalist entrepreneurs began publishing books and pamphlets in local languages. This allowed readers speaking regional dialects to share their literary experiences with each other, and a common discourse emerged. Anderson suggests novels and newspapers in particular helped readers develop a sense of commonality with each other.
Davis's thesis, which was eventually revised and expanded into a book (Acts of Union: Scotland and the Literary Negotiation of the British Nation, Stanford University Press, 1998) examined how Scottish literature in the 18th Century, notably the poems of Ossian (1760), helped the Scots preserve their culture after the union with England in 1707. The epic poems depict a time when Caledonians were a proud marshall and chivalric nation. "Oh I remember the joy and grief, but everyone is gone and I'm the last of my race," says Davis, paraphrasing a classical Ossian idea. Different communities interpreted Ossian in unique ways. "If you were a Scottish person you might have looked at it nostalgically and felt that you were part of a great and ancient race. But a Londoner might have looked at it and thought, yes they were great, but we conquered them," says Davis. Her example shows the difference between the connotative meaning (what each individual brings to a literary work) as opposed to the denotative meaning (the agreed meaning of the text). "I see it as a dynamic process by which the ideas are there. Print puts them into a material form and those works are distributed through various print networks. They then feed back into the ideas in the community, which produces new works and new perspectives and these ideas help people define who they are as individuals and who they are in the context of a nation," says Davis, whose office shelves are full of books on Scotland, and various Scottish knick knacks.
In a subsequent book, (Music, Postcolonialism and Gender: the Construction of Irish National Identity, 1724-1874, Notre Dame University Press, 2005), Davis shifted her focus to Ireland and the printing of Irish popular music. She is currently at work on a new book (Transnational Imaginings: Print Culture and the Global Construction of Britain, 1688-1801) which is all about the way literature drives globalization. "People think globalization is a contemporary phenomenon, but it really started in the late 17th Century," says Davis. In those days, print was the "Internet" of the time, and it was similarly transformational. The printing press was a critical force for globalization, leading to improved communication networks, new services, increased trade, new products and technologies.
Davis has been studying the Company of Scotland, a nationalist venture that arose to compete with England's wildly successful East India Company. Her book features pamphlets and other published materials relating to the Darien scheme, a failed attempt by the Company of Scotland to found a colony on the isthmus of Panama in the 1690s. Davis analyses period documents with titles such as, "Scotland's groans and lamentations about her colony at Darien". Ultimately, the project bankrupted Scotland and it was a key factor driving their subsequent union with England. According to Davis, even Robert Burns' poetry reflects the fiasco: "Now Sark rins over Solway sands, An' Tweed rins to the ocean, To mark where England's province stands- Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!"
Davis says, "We take literature for granted. But when we realize the impact print media can have on society, on culture and even on nation-building we ought to appreciate its importance more."
In addition to her work as an English professor, Davis chairs the SFU Centre for Scottish Studies, which is currently running a series on Scottish music and dance. Check out the website at scottish.sfu.ca for details of upcoming events.