Reflecting the Literary Reader

Reflecting the Literary Reader: A Book Review of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature
by Natasha Ganes

Although we read literature for a variety of personal reasons, they all boil down to one essential purpose: to seek knowledge. Doing so requires a sense of self that the reader brings to the text. It is impossible to separate the reader from what is being read, not only because we bring our personal interpretations and beliefs to the work, but also because the work is written by someone who, regardless of intention, did the same. In a refection of society itself, how we understand and articulate what we read has changed dramatically throughout history. As society shifts and changes to adapt to its surroundings, so do the methods in which we perceive literature. Readers of literature and the artists who write it mirror the world in which they live and are therefore unable to disconnect their observations from the work.

These ideas seem to be the central concepts that Marjorie Garber reflects on in her book The Use and Abuse of Literature. Despite the sound of its rather direct title, readers looking to this book for a tough critique on how we misinterpret or mishandle the numerous meanings found within literature will be disappointed. There is no blame cast within these pages–Garber does not fault how we interact with literature or tell us how to correct our current methods of reading. Instead, she takes the reader through an easily accessible journey of literature’s history and our often convoluted relationship with it. Uncomplicated comprehension aside, this is not a book for the lover of just any type of written word, in part because if you have not read the multitude of historic works she quotes you might miss out on many of her finer points, of which there are many. A Harvard University professor with an impressive knowledge of Renaissance literature, Garber makes good use of her expertise by incorporating numerous quotes from Shakespeare, Johnson, Donne, and the likes. Garber does not come across as an elitist, per se, and you do not have to share her proficiency in this field, but it certainly helps if you have a familiarity with the texts. Garber makes sure to stress (with much wit) that despite society’s petulance for referring to everything from ad copy to marketing material as “literature,” what she is speaking to here is the “form that has evolved over time” and is now “regarded, studied, read, and analyzed in a literary way.” Whether it is the graphic novel, once deemed a mere “descendant of the much maligned comic book,” or the essays of Bacon and Barthes, she specifies that when it comes to what we consider literature, “today’s answers will not suit the circumstances of tomorrow–or perhaps yesterday.”

What Garber wants the reader to understand is that the way we read and interpret literature, regardless of when or where it was written, depends on the current surroundings in which we find ourselves at the time we read it. An obvious example of society’s ability to shape our opinions of what we read is banned books, a phenomenon that Garber discusses in fair detail.  Thought of by their censors as something other than literature, many banned books are in fact “some of the most critically admired works” of all time and studied in literary classes the world over. Likely the most famous illustration of this is James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that many felt was so obscene when it first came out that its right to be published in the U.S. only came through numerous court hearings and after more than one judge decided the book was, in fact, worthy of the title literature. Garber tells us that for all the commotion the novel created in its heyday, today “it would be possible to regard the contretemps as quaint, signs of a very different time.”

Readers of The Use and Abuse of Literature will eventually come to realize the book does not come to a solid point. That “aha!” moment we have come to expect from works of critical analysis never quite materializes. Instead the book mirrors the study of literature itself, by showing the reader how our perceptions change with the times. Although Garber does not bring up any concepts here that are particularly new, she does manage to present her ideas in a way that keeps the reader engaged and interested. Her vast array of knowledge in literature and ability to incorporate the perfect quote to articulate her particular point helps with that, but it is the simplicity of the work’s overall language that drives her message home. The language Garber presents in the book is an exact image or reflection of the current language society uses today: perhaps not tomorrow, and certainly not yesterday, but now–at the moment we are reading it.

Garber, M. (2012). The use and abuse of literature (2nd ed.). New  York, NY: Anchor Books.