William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies Harvard University
The Use and Abuse of Literature
As defining as Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education were to the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, respectively, Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature is to our times.
Even as the decline of the reading of literature, as argued by the National Endowment for the Arts, proceeds in our culture, Garber (“One of the most powerful women in the academic world” – The New York Times) gives us a deep and engaging meditation on the usefulness and uselessness of literature in the digital age. What is literature, anyway? How has it been understood over time, and what is its relevance for us today? Who are its gatekeepers? Is its canonicity fixed? Why has literature been on the defensive since Plato? Does it have any use at all, or does it merely serve as an aristocratic or bourgeois accoutrement attesting to worldly sophistication and refinement of spirit? Is it, as most of us assume, good to read literature, much less study it –and what does either mean?
The Use and Abuse of Literature is a tour de force about our culture in crisis that is extraordinary for its brio, panache, and erudition (and appreciation of popular culture) lightly carried. Garber’s winning aim is to 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.
“[Garber] succeeds brilliantly at demonstrating that true literary reading is the demanding task of asking questions, not of finding rules or answers ... Garber’s erudition serves to educate general readers willing to embark on a moderately difficult trek with an authoritative guide.”
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Garber seems to have read everything, and this book offers, in addition to seductive argument, a complete anthology of quotations and engagements with poets, playwrights, novelists, biographers and literary theorists. Her book is a testament not simply to Great Books but also to a great conversation between ourselves and the past and among ourselves as present readers. Why read? In the end, the answer to the question is as complex and compelling as "why live?"” Read entire review
– San Francisco Chronicle
“Garber argues convincingly ... that literature is ‘a status rather than a quality.’ She provides elegant summaries of various reading methods that have gone in and out of academic fashion over the years, among them New Critical textual analysis, historicism and deconstruction, and she is sympathetic to each to varying degrees. Her final judgment ... is that “it is how the story means, rather than what it means, that is the literary question.” Garber is a sensitive guide to this how, explicating metaphor, allusion, self- reflection and other ways in which literary works go about meaning what they mean. Her own range of reference is astonishingly wide ... She provides an implicit proof of a point made explicitly in the book, that there need be no conflict between loving literature passionately and studying it academically.”
– The New York Times Book Review
“Erudite and stimulating ... Garber is warmly clarifying and acerbically entertaining as she convincingly defends the academic study of literature as an essential facet of culture ... Both scholar and enthusiast, Garber makes her expertly argued praise for the 'delights of literary immersion' and belief in 'the enduring power of literature' deeply affirming. A welcome, wise, and edifying call back to literature itself rather than the paper versus digital debate.”
“If anyone is qualified to rescue literature from the threat of irrelevancy, it’s Garber, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at Harvard, and author of some 15 books on cultural and literary matters, including six on Shakespeare alone. She simply knows everything there is to know about the history and practice of literature and criticism.”
– Laura Kipnis, Wilson Quarterly Review
“Chockablock with examples and in-depth analysis, this can be savored by academics and lay readers alike.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“a leisurely and learned ramble through dozens, if not hundreds, of texts and topics ... the real justification for Garber’s method is the way it enacts her central thesis: that literature is not so much a subject as an activity.”
– Boston Globe
“Garber claims for literature a sort of stem cell-like power to generate fresh and new imaginative experiences in those who read it. ... For anyone who’s taken a survey course in English literature, or, God forbid, majored in English, this book will send you back to the canon.”