Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Use and Abuse of Literature

“No one who is not deeply corrupted will think of making learning a form of commerce for his own enrichment.” (37).

Marjorie Garber, in her book The Use and Abuse of Literature, examines all of the ways the written word has been promoted, performed, presented, plagiarized, and consumed by the public. It is a wide ranging work. A big swath of what we might call the literary universe is discussed in non-academic terms. The guiding question that fuels all the explorations is definitional: what is literature?  Garber keeps both edges of her chosen title close together. Literature of every kind has by turns been used in a myriad of ways and abused in just as many. The work doesn’t just examine the highbrow stuff. The philistine stuff gets plenty of room to disco. The literary world, Garber argues, is constantly evolving. Literature is a living breathing thing and we will continue to talk and absorb literature in all its different guises. For example, Shakespeare will always remain new because every generation has to absorb him, comment on him, praise or complain about him. The same goes for comics.

The Use and Abuse of Literature reads like a cultural history of literature, the ways that people and society have responded to literature and how it has shaped us over the centuries. Literary studies—from the exercises of the great critic-connoisseurs to the essay writings of high school kids—is a process. It is an ongoing discussion with the works of the past reinterpreted and digested in new ways with each successive generation. There is no ultimate, true once and for all time, reading of any literary work (prose, poetry or otherwise).

This is a fine study but I have one criticism. The narrative is choppy. So much that orbits the literary sun is given space to move between the covers of this book, the views of Samuel Johnson, poetic artifices, the idea of an English major, deconstruction and the culture wars to mention just a few, and at times I felt the celestial satellites were unconnected, or rather I would have benefited from a clearer indication of the mysterious force holding the whole thing together. As a final comment, I would say you have to be in a particular mood to read this book. It is intellectual history, a socio-cultural look at the written word and fortunately the book never descends into overly erudite exploration. The opening quote captures the style well. It is like conversing with an articulate and knowledgeable literary culture critic. Each chapter opens a new perspective on some aspect of literature and this particular book’s merit rests in its abundance of little insights any one of which might lead a reader to take up once again a familiar title with a changed perspective or to give some hitherto unexplored type of presentation, say memoir, a chance to work its magic.

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