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The Use and Abuse of Literature Hardcover – March 29, 2011
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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
Top customer reviews
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. The discussion of Edmund Wilson's quest to start the Library of America was entertaining and thought-provoking. In the chapter on reading poetry, Garber's discussion (and critique) of New Criticism is much more generous than the method usually enjoys these days (the term these days often comes with an implied or overt sneer; I confess I have been a sneerer but now shall mend my ways).
The weaknesses and difficulties were more frequent. The book overall didn't fully cohere with its title or its announced direction in the first chapter; it struck me more as a collection of loosely associated essays than a studied engagement of the problem at hand (and in this way, I suppose this text models its own idea about how literature works). As to particular ideas, I understand the idea that literature -- even Shakespeare -- is "always contemporary," but perhaps because she lives in a world of Shakespeare scholars and advanced students, Garber forgets that arriving at any sensible reading of the plays or sonnets requires some understanding of archaic terms, theatrical conventions, world views, and so on; Shakespeare is as much never as he is always contemporary(I hope that makes sense).
I found the chapter on metaphor to be rather turgid and something of a major digression from the stated aim of the book. Garber's account of Lakoff and Johnson's "Metaphors We Live By" seemed a bit unfair to me as the book concerned itself with metaphors in everyday language rather than literature, and its argument about how everyday metaphoric language conditions conceptual thought and perception still seems sound. Garber is on stronger ground in her critique of Lakoff and Turner's "More than Cool Reason"; in my experience the glory of poetic metaphor has usually been when it shattered the kind of categories and facile correspondences found in that later (and lesser) text.
I was struck and bothered by the frequent invocation of Freud, which reminds me of one of the most serious problems with the critical milieu of the 80s and 90s. Freud, obviously, was a brilliant thinker whose ideas and writing continue to merit close inquiry by thoughtful people -- however, the field of psychology has moved well beyond Freud; except in the most general and remote of ways, his ideas no longer hold sway (or so my colleagues in that department tell me). Some literary theorists, however, remain fixated on his theories as a mode of literary interpretation (or understanding -- I'm not sure we ever "interpret" literature), just as they remain fixated on the theories of other intellectuals whose work has largely been discarded: Marx (whose economics have brought misery everywhere they've been tried), Geertz (the anthropologists I know say he's interesting and quirky but not mainstream), Derrida (Saussurean linguistics is foundational but linguists are well past it nowadays), and Foucault (who took him seriously apart from American literary critics?). Now all of these men were brilliant in their day and are still worth pondering, but in simple fact their own disciplines have largely moved beyond them while literary theorists seems to remain enamored of them (the late Wayne Booth complained of literary critics taking their "philosophy from off the shelf"). So this book reminds me that many in literary studies -- perhaps Garber -- would rather be "interesting" than true (allowing, per Garber's penultimate chapter, that literary "truth" is a complex and problematic matter).
I found myself of more than one mind about Garber's final chapter on "Closure." First, I agree with her absolutely that literary studies, whether theoretical or practical, remain open-ended and will ever be so (this is so of all fields of thought). But, as Hamlet (whose remarkable failure to achieve closure resulted in a bloodbath) says, "that would be scanned." Obviously, this is no way to live: what would become of us if judges never closed cases, engineers never opened bridges, mail carriers never completed their daily routes, reviewers never ended their reviews, or I didn't get my laundry folded and put away? The "literature is never closed" trope is an old and tired one (I think I first heard it in the 7th grade -- 1972?), and it's clever, "interesting" and of some consideration. But teachers of literature need to offer the world more than interesting ideas for late-night bull sessions around the wine jug (not that I disparage those; they have their place) if they wish to net more than 4 percent of all college students as majors.
Which brings me to a fine point about this book. In higher education we now live under the regimes of outcomes assessment and accountability. One cannot sit before a committee of deans, or trustees, or state assemblymen, and, when questioned as to the use of studying literature today, say, "its use is that it has no use." That's very Zen-like and clever, and perhaps true in its way, but likely to defund the entire program. Now I think that's as much a critique of the world of outcomes assessment as it is of literary studies today, but I (like the Player in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead") also know which way the wind is blowing. It's probably not blowing that way at Harvard, where Marjorie Garber has a secure lodging, but for those of us at small schools and state schools, well, "it has no use" will put us out of business.
I think in such circumstances I would prefer the words of Robert Frost, who says a poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom." Garber seems to resist studiously that notion of "wisdom" in this book, and I think that's a loss.
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. I approached literature under, what some critics would say, the naïve assumption that writers do have things to say and stories worth telling. And many writers, if not all, do; otherwise, why would they write, or a better question is, how could they write? In "How Proust Can Change Your Life," which Garber takes issue with, Alain de Botton thinks Proust says something meaningful about human experience. While de Botton's book isn't necessary to know that (one needs only read Proust), his approach is more successful at inspiring me to read than Garber's. Most academics no longer make the case, if they ever did, that reading literature can be a moving, life-changing, or transformative experience (emotionally or intellectually) for the individual. To do so, would acknowledge that the books themselves are, in a way, teachers. As a result, Garber tries to reach a wider audience, but ends up writing for other academics.
For a much more interesting, inspiring, and human discussion on the value of literature (not literary studies) in the digital age, I recommend David L. Ulin's little book, The Lost Art of Reading.