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The Use and Abuse of Literatureby Marjorie Garber
"In a time when reading has devolved into a means for the efficient conveyance of information, and sustained reading is in decline even as the techniques for distributing "text" multiply by the hour, lovers of literature insist, or pray, that their stock-in-trade not be dehydrated, shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried, shaken down, translated, or otherwise reduced to shadows of grander somethings — ideologies, deep structures of consciousness, hard-wired linguistic capacities, or some other fundamentals. If literature were a person, she would be freaking out." Todd Gitlin, The New Republic (Read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
Book News Annotation:
Garber has had a lifelong involvement with literature and is currently affiliated with Harvard U. as professor of English and of visual and environmental studies, and as chair of the program in dramatic arts. Yet she starts from scratch, makes no assumptions, raises plenty of questions about what literature is, its history, its current decline (according to statistics), and the debates over the value of studying literature. She raises the issues, and she responds, stating in the chapter on "the impossibility of closure" that "literary interpretation is a conversation taking place over time and space," an ongoing exploration of difficult and important questions. Her writing is vigorous and engaging, and this book will fortify the students, teachers, academics, and general readers who already have a feel for literature and its importance--and could be of interest as well to those who need some convincing. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
As crucial as The Closing of the American Mind, Cultural Literacy, and Illiberal Education were to their times, The Use and Abuse of Literature is to ours.
In this deep and engaging meditation on the usefulness and uselessness of reading in the digital age, Harvard English professor Marjorie Garber (“One of the most powerful women in the academic world.”—The New York Times) aims to reclaim “literature” from the periphery of our personal, educational, and professional lives and restore it to the center, as a radical way of thinking.
But what is literature anyway, how has it been understood over time, and what is its relevance for us today? Who gets to decide what the word means? Why has literature been on the defensive since Plato? Does it have any use at all, other than serving as bourgeois or aristocratic accoutrements attesting to one’s worldly sophistication and refinement of spirit? What are the boundaries that separate it from its “commercial” instance and from other more mundane kinds of writing? Is it, as most of us assume, good to read, much less study—and what would that mean?
Marjorie Garber has written a tour de force about our culture in crisis that is extraordinary for its brio, panache, and erudition (and understanding of popular culture) lightly carried.
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.
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