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The Use and Abuse of Literature

The Use and Abuse of Literature

The Use and Abuse of Literature

Garber, Marjorie; Garber, Marjorie; Garber, Marjorie; Garber, Marjorie;  
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Literary Criticism
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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.

About the Author

Marjorie Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, and chair of the Program in Dramatic Arts. She has served as director of the Humanities Center at Harvard, chair of the department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. A member of the Board of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies and a trustee of the English Institute, she is the former president of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, and a continuing member of its board. She is the author of sixteen books and has edited seven collections of essays on topics from Shakespeare to literary and cultural theory to the arts and intellectual life, including Shakespeare After All, which was acclaimed as one of Newsweek’s ten best nonfiction books of 2004 and received the 2005 Christian Gauss Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society.


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

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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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the National Endowment for the Arts reported a disturbing drop in the number of Americans who read “literary” works. Drawing upon responses to the 2002 Census survey, which had asked more than seventeen thousand adults whether they had read any novels, short stories, poetry, or plays in their leisure time, the NEA noted that 45 percent said they had read some fiction, 12 percent had read some poetry, and only 4 percent had read a play. These findings, published in Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, showed an alarming decline of reading in all age groups across the country, and especially among eighteen-to twenty-­four-year-olds. The chairman of the NEA termed the results an indi­cation of a “national crisis,” one that reflected “a general collapse in advanced literacy,” and a loss that “impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”1

Among the report’s “10 key findings” were that under half of the adult American population now reads literature; that although women read more than men (“Only slightly more than one-third of adult Ameri­can males now read literature”), reading rates were declining for both men and women; that reading among persons at every level of education, including college graduates and postgraduates, had declined over the past twenty years; and that “literary reading strongly correlates other forms of active civic participation,” including volunteer and charity work, cultural involvement with museums and the performing arts, and attendance at sporting events. It was less surprising to find that compe­tition with other modes of information, like the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices, had a negative effect upon the number of adults who regularly read.2 Race and ethnicity seemed not to be crucial factors: the rates of decline included whites, African Americans, and Hispanics. “Listening” to literature counted as a kind of reading for this survey, although watching films did not: women are more likely to listen to novels or poetry than men, whites more likely to listen to book read­ings, African Americans most likely to listen to poetry readings. Here the report suggests that “in part” the reason may be “the popularity of dub and slam poetry readings in the U.S.”3
The idea that fiction/nonfiction should be the determining category for “literary/nonliterary” is spelled out in a brief section called “Litera­ture vs. Books,” in which “literature” is explicitly defined as including “popular genres such as mysteries, as well as contemporary and classic literary fiction. No distinctions were drawn on the quality of literary works.”4 So a work of “literature” for the purposes of respondents to this survey could be a Harlequin romance or a Sidney Sheldon novel but not Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Machiavelli’s The Prince, or David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman. I can understand why the survey wanted to make some kind of distinction, and I agree with the democratic decision not to judge works on their putative “quality” (which, in any case, a longer historical view would show is likely to change over time). But the decision to exclude “nonfic­tion,” or what an older tradition once dubbed “intellectual prose,” does seem to undercut a little the message that “anyone who loves literature or values the cultural, intellectual, and political importance of active and engaged literacy in American society will respond to this report with grave concern.”5

There was a time when the word literature meant an acquaintance with “letters” or books—the confident possession, that is, of humane learn­ing and literary culture. “He had probably more than common litera­ture,” wrote Dr. Johnson about the poet John Milton. “His literature was unquestionably great. He read all the languages which are consid­ered either as learned or polite”6 Although Milton wrote great literature, that is not what Johnson’s sentence says. It says that he had literature, which is to say learning, a familiarity with and understanding of words and texts. The nineteenth-century novelist Maria Edgeworth uses lit­erature in a similar way, describing “A woman of considerable informa­tion and literature.”7 This sense of the word is now generally obsolete, and would, as is the fate of such obsolescences, undoubtedly be regarded as an error if used in the same way today. For example, if I were to write that J. M. Coetzee “had great literature,” any copy editor would imme­diately “correct” my phrase to say that Coetzee wrote great literature. The new meaning, the only meaning current in departments and pro­grams of literature, is this:
Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consid­eration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect. (Oxford English Dictionary 3a.)
It’s worth noting that the first instance of this use of the term given in the historical dictionary of the English language is comparatively recent—1812—hundreds of years after Chaucer and Shakespeare (and, of course, thousands of years after the Greek and Latin “classics”). Thus, over the centuries in England, the U.S., and indeed in France, “litera­ture” has changed from a personal attribute or characteristic (something one has) to an institution and a product (something one writes or knows).
Concurrent with this development was the emergence of a personage called a “man of letters,” whose profession was the production of literary work, whether or not he—or, latterly, she—actually earned a living by writing. Here is Sir Walter Scott, one of the most financially successful of nineteenth-century novelists: “I determined that literature should be my staff, but not my crutch, and that the profits of my literary labour . . . should not . . .  become necessary to my ordinary expenses.”8 For Scott, literature was a product of “labour” and produced “profits” of a pecuni­ary as well as of a more rarefied kind. Despite his disclaimer, he speaks here as a professional man.
At the same time that a specifically high-cultural sense of literature was coming into currency, what we might call the general case of litera­ture as meaning any body of writing on a given subject (“the scientific literature”) was developing, again concurrent with the establishment of academic and technical disciplines, each of which was supported and buttressed by specialist publications that came to be called a “literature.” And below that, if we might speak for a moment in terms of cultural hierarchy, was the most general case of all, the equation of literature with all printed matter. It’s instructive to see the sequence of examples offered by the OED for what it still calls a colloquial usage:
1895: “In canvassing, in posters, and in the distribution of what, by a profane perversion of language, is called ‘literature.’ ”
1900: “A more judicious distribution of posters, and what is termed ‘literature.’ ”
1938: “It is some literature from the Travel Bureau.”
1962: “Full details and literature from: Yugoslav National Tourist Office.”
1973: “I talked my throat dry, gave away sheaves of persuasive literature.”
Where, at the end of the nineteenth century, this use of the term was deemed profane and perverse, and thus encased in scare quotes, by the late twentieth century (the citation is from a 1973 crime novel by Dick Francis), the word literature no longer needed parsing or protecting and was routinely used to describe flyers, brochures, and other disposable printed stuff.

So the meanings of literature as a term have, perhaps paradoxically, moved both “up” and “down” in recent years. On the one hand, it now seems to denote a particular reading, writing, and publishing practice associated with middle to high culture, with the notion of a literary canon, and with English majors; on the other hand, it has been co-opted—or universalized—so that it means just about anything professional—or research-based—written in words.
In the pages that follow I will attempt not only to argue for but also to invoke and demonstrate the “uses” of reading and of literature, not as an instrument of moral or cultural control, nor yet as an infusion of “plea­sure,” but rather as a way of thinking. That is why, in my view, it is high time to take back the term literature. To do so will mean explaining why reading—not skimming for information or for the plot (or for the sexy, titillating “good parts” of a novel or a political exposé)—is really hard to do; and why the very uselessness of literature is its most profound and valuable attribute. The result of such a radical reorientation of our understanding of what it means to read, and to read literature, and to read in a “literary” way...