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The Use and Abuse of Literature Hardcover – March 29, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0375424342 ISBN-10: 0375424342 Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (March 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375424342
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375424342
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,610,734 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Harvard English professor Garber (Patronizing the Arts) leads an expedition through the archives of literature, rejecting expansion of the term's meaning to include all printed material or just about anything professional or research-based written in words. She sets out to reclaim the word, asserting that "the very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute." Employing the history of literature to demonstrate the difficult work the act of reading entails, she draws on examples from authors as diverse as 15th-century Leon Alberti ("No art, however minor, demands less than total dedication") and Virginia Woolf on the difference between reading fiction and poetry; she even works in a reference to Oprah's book club. Garber describes approaches to literary scholarship such as the close reading of the New Criticism and deconstruction to justify her claim that how a text is studied and analyzed will determine if it is literature. She succeeds brilliantly at demonstrating that true literary reading is the demanding task of asking questions, not of finding rules or answers. Though the book is peppered with specialist terms like catachresis, Garber's erudition serves to educate general readers willing to embark on a moderately difficult trek with an authoritative guide. (Mar.)
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Praise for Marjorie Garber
Shakespeare After All
“The indispensable introduction to the indispensable writer . . . Garber’s is the most exhilarating seminar room you’ll ever enter.”
“A return to the times when the critic’s primary function was as an enthusiast, to open up the glories of the written word for the reader.”
The New York Times
“Garber’s introduction is an exemplary account of what is known about Shakespeare and how his work has been read and regarded through the centuries, while the individual essays display scrupulous and subtle close reading.”
—The New Yorker
“A lifetime of learning has gone into the production of this massive volume . . . Garber is sensitive to significant details in the language . . . and she gives cogent accounts of historical contexts.”
The Boston Globe
Shakespeare and Modern Culture
“Garber’s reading is wonderful in its depth of insight . . . A fierce devotion to Shakespeare shines forth from every page.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Sharply incisive . . . Garber merrily illustrates how modern culture can miss Shakespeare’s original points . . . Her book credibly demonstrates that the ever-changing timeliness of Shakespeare’s thoughts is what makes them timeless.”
The New York Times
“Garber’s approach is eclectic . . . She is an inspiring reader.”
The New Yorker
“[Garber is a] scholar and critic from whom we expect nothing but candor, insight, erudition, and even surprise. A brilliant, revelatory book.”
The Buffalo News

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Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By J. Marlin on January 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was looking forward to reading this due to Marjorie Garber's well deserved reputation as a practical critic, particularly of Shakespeare. This book, however, fails to make the leap from thoughtful considerations of individual works to larger issues in literary theory. I found little, almost nothing new conceptually in the book; it was largely a restatement of ideas that were commonplace when I was in grad school in the late 80s and early 90s: texts are open to infinitely multiple readings, how meaning is made is more important than what is said, fictive memoirs contain their own kind of "truth," literary works(no matter how old) are "always contemporary," no literary work achieves closure, and so on. My general reaction, from chapter to chapter, was, "oh, that again, eh?"

But the book was (with exceptions noted below) clearly written with an engaging voice, and might be worthwhile for today's grad students in literature -- particularly those recently starting out -- to read a fair case for a restatement of the profession's (often questionable) conventional wisdom. I'll allow that while I came across no striking new ideas about literary study, the book did prompt me to think again about my own positions, and there's value in that.

Some moments stood out as stronger than others. The chapter, "What's Love Got to do with it?" offered an interesting discussion of a major crux in literary studies: the love the "common reader" (a problematic term, as Garber shows) clashing with the analytic or theoretic turn of literary scholars. This is a poignant problem for many who enter advanced literary studies out of their love for reading, which is often beaten out of them in their first theory or textual criticism class.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By AeIoU on December 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover
After the fourth chapter, and realizing that Garber hadn't said anything "useful" or even new for the last 100 pages, I began skimming the rest of this book and skipping whole sections of the chapters at times. An abuse of a book, no doubt. To be fair, though, she does begin to assert her position on language's irreducibility in the last two chapters, which is where her argument should have begun.

My problem with the book is how little she has to say about the subject herself. To carry her argument, she quotes large sections of text by other writers or critics. As a result, her book is more of a historical survey of how literature has been seen by others than it is her own case to, as the book purports to achieve, "reclaim literature from the margins of our personal, educational, and professional lives and restore it to the center, as a fierce, radical way of thinking," and why that matters.

Her solution is to read literature for how it means rather than what it means, which isn't anything groundbreaking since it's merely a return to formalism and New Criticism. William Deresiewicz's harsh, but not undeserving, review of Garber's book in Slate magazine thinks, however, that the how and what of literature are inextricably linked with one another, and provides a more compelling argument for the use, or rather the value, of literature in his small review than anything Garber offers in her book.

On a more personal note, I studied literature not because I wanted to know, for instance, the rhyme scheme of a certain poem or how one rhetorical trope describes a particular emotion, but because of the ideas and experiences, 'the what,' a writer conveys through the language.
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40 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Ted Burke on April 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The central conceit of a much contemporary criticism has been to raise the critic's musings on literature to the same level as the literature these folks intensely scrutinize. This seems a ploy to have literary critics form a new priesthood, an authoritative to be sought out no less than that of the poet, the novelist, the playwright, even the philosopher. Marjorie Garber is fairly typical of the academic who feels the need to produce a tract, composed almost entirely of weathered , rusty post-modernist adages, that demands that the reader requires the professional critic to open up the text for them and so facilitate a new rigor in how those so blessed think about the world.

"The Use and Abuse of Literature", a manifesto intended to convince the readership she condescends to that their particular takes on books they've read and lived with are woefully incomplete, even shallow. We need to stop asking what things mean and investigate instead how they mean. If you labored for some years with attempts to grasp recent critical trends, you no doubt realize this is something that creates topic drift. Garber gives us permission to not debate ideas put forth through narrative conflict and metaphor and instead insists on turing us into mechanics. It's a messy and pointless labor, I think.

Even a critic I happen to enjoy, Harold Bloom, wrote a little instruction Manuel called "How to Read and Why", a grandiose albeit slight volume where the good critic plagiarized himself from other of his books about and offered up an inconsequential mumbling about reading in a correctly guided manner. Oh well, even smart people with insight and several levels of wit and discernment can be subject to a brief bits of blow-hardism.
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