The Future of Reading (Hint: It's Not All Bad)

A conversation with Harvard professor Marjorie Garber about her new book, The Use and Abuse of Literature



Harvard English professor Marjorie Garber is perhaps best known for her work on Shakespeare. With book titles such as Shakespeare and Modern Culture, Shakespeare After All, Coming of Age in Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's Ghost Writers to her credit, as well as a multitude of articles, she has certainly done her time as a specialist. But in her new book, The Use and Abuse of Literature, she takes her fondness for broader arguments and uses it to tackle literature as a whole, defining it, evaluating it, and discussing its future as an integral part of the human experience. As Garber works through what we read, how we read, and why we read, no stone is left unturned, from literary criticism to Kindles, Milton to Dan Brown, health pamphlets to Nietzsche. In a book accessible to academics and laypeople alike, she sounds an optimistic note even as Borders bookstore closes its doors: Literature is all-encompassing, and it isn't going anywhere. Garber spoke with The Atlantic about why she is so optimistic, and explained some of her views on the challenges and pleasures of literature and reading.

If a provost or a group of administrators came to you with plans to cut a literature department, what's your response? What's the one reason they shouldn't do that?

I would ask them whether there was a piece of writing, a line of poetry, a moment in a play, a moment in a popular song—any piece of text—that had been meaningful to them, early in life or late in life. Something that they remembered, something that they came back to for the way it sounded, for the way it meant, for the way it encapsulated thinking. Everyone has something like that. I would discuss with them what it meant, and get them to talk about how literature is important to them, because I think it's more important to people than they think—they just don't think of it as a category, necessarily. Sometimes the experience is pedagogical, sometimes it's reading a poem in a class, sometimes it's reading something in a newspaper or on the subway, or going to a film or a play and hearing a phrase that stuck with you.

I get the sense from your book that you do think literature can speak for itself to a certain degree, and that people can at some gut level recognize the value of literature. Where, then, do you think the challenges for literature lie?

One of the biggest problems facing literature today is things like the disappearance of the neighborhood book store—places where you can actually go and look at books and touch them and look through them and see what's next to them on the shelves. I love Amazon—I order books from Amazon—but I think there's something about the books and the bookstore as a cultural meeting-place that is enormously important.

I don't think the problems facing literature are within literature. I think that they tend to be circumstantial—the disappearance in some universities and colleges of a kind of introductory course to literary classics or to the epic or the poem or the novel that it was once assumed everyone took some version of. The minute you're exposed to things like that they begin to associate themselves with the other things that you might do for a living or for fun, whether it's economics or law. I have lots of students that come back to me later in life or send me notes and say "I am just now beginning to realize how important these literary texts are to me."

So I think it's a matter of exposure. I think it's a matter of accessibility. I think that literature does invite conversations but you have to meet it somewhere along the line.

So when people talk about the decline of literature, or moan that we're not going to appreciate Shakespeare in 50 years because people are reading trash instead, you feel that's incorrect. You say that if people are introduced to literature they'll value it?

I certainly believe that, but I also believe that all reading is reading, and if you read with literary intention, if you pay attention to the particulars of language, to imagery, to sound, to figures of speech, then whether you're reading the newspaper or a summer beach book or reading a chapter book to your children, there is something literary there. My book goes to some length to talk about how things become literary, become literature, that Shakespeare's plays themselves were thought of as the opposite of canonical or important or even as literature in their time. When Bodleian funded the Bodleian library at Oxford, he wouldn't allow stage plays to be there because they were riffraff, they were trash. Very often novels began as alternatives to serious reading (things like sermons or prayers and philosophical meditations) and these things have now made their way into the forefront of what we now call literature.

I don't believe there's a necessary divide between highbrow and lowbrow or whatever. I think that the habit of reading is intensely pleasurable and it's also hard. The pleasure of it is partly the pleasure of detection, the pleasure of recognition, the pleasure of response. I think you can probably tell from the book that I'm very optimistic actually about the future of literature and literary reading—I'm far from despairing and I don't actually feel that there's a crisis. What we need is to continue to show the power of reading, the pleasure of reading—and, again, more people experience that than we are sometimes aware of.
Also the power of writing, which is an analogous pleasure and power.

So where do you come down on the attention span debate that's been developing, arguing that all this time on the Internet or on TV somehow ruins minds for reading?

I'm a teacher as well as a writer, and I do not see that we're on a downward path at all. I think that multitasking is something that people have always done, we just haven't always called it multitasking. To perform several actions at once is a very old practice. The idea that reading is somehow an activity set apart from life isn't very historically accurate. We don't necessarily need the ivory tower and the moment of complete stillness in order to meditate about such things. We do need them sometimes, but there are many ways of encountering words, language, text. I also think that things like Twitter, for example—artificial limitations on form—are very good practice for writing and for reading. There has been some kind of Twitter-related poetry.

Once upon a time there was a paper shortage and people would have to write on pieces of paper across and on the back—there are all these stories about Jane Austen doing some of her writing on a little kind of ivory notepad, very small. These limitations turned out to be pluses rather than minuses, and I think the question of how we read today is just a matter of trying to understand it as part of a whole historical continuum of readjusting to how words affect us. I don't think that reading on a screen or reading while listening to music means the death of reading or the death of the book. It means instead a different life.

What about literary criticism? You say at one point in your book that if we aren't analyzing these texts they aren't living and they aren't literary. Are you saying that Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare without literary critics?

No. I'm not at all talking about experts, here. As long as there are readers, there are critics, in the broader sense. This isn't about an expert class, and it isn't about saying "go to the specialist." It's really about the pleasure of, the difficulty of, reading. By "difficulty" I don't mean obscure words, necessarily, and I don't mean obscure constructions. I mean not being satisfied with only one set of responses, trying to understand how you might see it through the eyes of a different character, how it might have been read at a different moment, what it does say to one's own moment. I feel this so profoundly—that works of literature are living things, that they do grow and change over time. And they have made us who we are.

That brings up this part of your book where you ask: "What authority does the author have"? You don't say that all readings are equally valid, but at the same time you don't say that just because an author didn't intend a certain reading, we should shy away from it. Where do you draw the line?

Well, once a work of literature or writing is out in the world, the author really can't control its meanings. It's about how language works, not about how the author writes a blueprint. It's perfectly possible, I think, to do a very interesting and effective reading—by effective I mean you have proof from the text, in the language—which might run against the grain of what an author might have intended.

Also, the text may have moved, historically, in such a way that it now means something quite different. The Merchant of Venice is simply not the same play after the Holocaust: history has changed how it means.

I think literary texts are beautiful, powerful, tensile, but they're also very tough, and no amount of strong readings is going to destroy them or move them out of their path or anything like that. I like readings that surprise me and that maybe weren't what I myself experienced when reading a text, but I need to see the evidence presented that makes such a reading powerful and possible.

Does it matter whether we're talking about literature in terms of art or in terms of ideas? What if something is written specifically to get a certain idea across: In that case, does it matter if the idea that the author was trying to get across ends up being the idea that people take from it?

Well there's lots of very good polemical literature, but what makes it live is not the argument that it makes but the way it makes it. And this would be true of Oliver Wendell Holmes or of Darwin—things that are intellectual prose that are deliberately polemically argued. How about the Declaration of Independence? It's because of the phrasing and the evocative language, the power of rhythm and figure and imagery, that these have become powerful social texts for us. It's not just because of what they say, but because of how they say it.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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