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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.
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.