The Use and Abuse of Literature
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In this deep and engaging meditation on the usefulness and uselessness of reading in the digital age, Harvard English professor Marjorie Garber 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?
empirical after the heady attractions of the ungrounded “theoretical” had its effects upon literary scholars as well as upon historians, anthropologists, and sociologists.62 Inevitably, perhaps, chroniclers began to contemplate “the historic turn.” The editor of the volume The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences noted that there had been a proliferation of historical emphases across the disciplines: “the ‘new historicism’ in literary and legal theory, a revived interest in ‘history in
able to read, a person of literature or literary training was a prized, if undercompensated, member of society (Oliver Goldsmith: “A man of literary merit is sure of being caressed by the great, though seldom enriched”).9 The nineteenth century made celebrities of some of its writers. Dickens and Wilde toured triumphantly in America, while “Longfellow … largely paid the poet’s penalty of being made the lion of all the drawing rooms.”10 (A characteristic modern version of this “lionization” is a
and broad forehead—and makes her, inevitably, sincere and demure, ‘simple and coy.’ ” But then without a pause, Donaldson goes on to say, “Such a woman naturally appeals to a man, and the narrator’s enthusiasm for her is aroused to so superlative a degree that a superlative modifies almost every one of her qualities. Of course he never does get around to speaking about her conscience … the Prioress’s charity—a word that in Chaucer’s time connoted the whole range of Christian love—gets lost among
incongruity, he loses both worlds; he has neither the freedom of fiction nor the substance of fact.” Mixing the worlds “of Bohemia and Hamlet and Macbeth” with the world “of brick and pavement; of birth, marriage, and death; of Acts of Parliament,” etc. is “abhorrent.”53 So what is literary about biography to Virginia Woolf is the complicated freedom of the biographer in the matter of writing. Not in making things up, but in making them vivid and in establishing equality with the subject from
an immense pirouette and prodigious grin of his own, such as few people could perform after dinner without being sick, ending on one foot and t’other in the air …58 And finally, from a letter yet another five years later (July 22, 1850), which finds Lady Lyttelton once again musing on her reading, this time from the royal residence at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, when she is interrupted by the sound of Albert at the organ: —Last evening such a sunset! I was sitting gazing at it and