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.


Bruce Cratsley

Well that gets to the topic of language, which you clearly love. You're pretty optimistic about literature in general. Do you have the same optimism about language? As with literature, there are always Cassandras saying our vocabulary is shrinking, or that there's too much Internet-speak.

Languages grow and change. Presumably the ancient Hebrews had no word for "typewriter" because they didn't have a typewriter—you have to add words. Certainly the Internet and cell phones and so forth have changed abbreviations and even syntax and grammar, but I think that this is often very pleasurable and very witty. Every era has phrases that it over-uses that become bywords and catchwords and you forget what they really meant, but for me, as somebody who is interested in living speech and living writing, I find it actually quite ingenious and interesting. And again, I like the necessity of constraint, that different forms call for different kinds of responses, that instant writing is going to be less formally elegant in a certain kind of way but it's also going to have a certain kind of powerful directness.

There's that whole debate—and I talk a little bit about it in the book—about whether President Obama as a candidate was so eloquent that his eloquence was misleading, and therefore you had to sort of call yourself to account and say, "No no, it's just the language that is moving you"—as if language could ever be just language.

But this distrust of the power of language is one of language's powers. And this goes way, way back to the ancient Sophists and to Plato and to this question about whether language is alluring and seductive. It is, but that doesn't also mean that it isn't highly specific, descriptive, capturable. That dialogue, that back and forth between the dangerousness of language and its precision—following that and getting pleasure from that is the power of reading and the power of literary reading.

So just as we don't necessarily need to worry that we're reading Emily Dickinson poems less than we used to, we shouldn't necessarily worry that we're using the word "amiable" less than we used to, because in both cases new options will come up, and we will replace what we lose?

Well also it's quite cyclical. Things come in and out. If you look at clothing fashion, and language fashion—and language and clothing have very often been compared throughout their long histories—things that seem like they will never return as linguistic forms do return. The 19th-century power of oratory is making a comeback.

Things get recycled, and they come back in a slightly different form. So I don't think we're ever going to lose any words, and I don't think we're ever going to lose any modes of expression. Some will become more powerful for a moment and then the next generation will look at them and say "I can't believe everyone always said 'whatever.'" Words will disappear and return in a different way. Many of these words that are superlatives for us like "awesome" and "awful" and "terrific" actually have highly specific meanings which are quite different from the easy way in which we use them now. But that doesn't mean that the words themselves don't have power. I'm a great reader of the Oxford English Dictionary. I love the historical meanings of words. I feel, and many other people do, too, that the histories of words are part of their meanings—that none of those things ever really drop out.

That recalls this gorgeous passage in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia where Septimus is explaining why we shouldn't worry about the lost books of Alexandria.

And I think that Stoppard has it absolutely right—so does Borges. It's the idea that we'll be rewriting those books sometime soon.

Anything else you'd like to say summing up this book and the message you were trying to get out?

It was itself very pleasurable to write and it gave me a chance to think about works that I have been reading and thinking about through my entire life, not just recent years. For me it was a re-encountering for me of why it is that literature is so important to me and I hope that some of that comes across in the book.

I got the sense that you were having a lot of fun with it, actually.

No kidding. Absolutely. It was really, really fun to think about what text would illustrate this thought or what text that made me have that thought. I had to bring it to consciousness and say, "Oh yes, it's about To the Lighthouse" or, "it's about Keats's sonnets."

What's the single biggest problem facing literary criticism today?

Specialization. I was very privileged to learn the long arc of literature—I won't say the canon, because now I really do believe there are many canons. I love making analogies—you can probably see this in the book—between different periods, and making unusual juxtapositions of metaphysical poems and Romantic poems, and for me it is such a great pleasure to have a wide historical range and a broad generic range, to be able to talk about novels and poems and plays and intellectual prose. I think that sometimes the profession urges people to specialize in a period or an author or a place or a genre in a way that doesn't permit this, and for me that would have been a real loss.

It sounds almost like you're saying at some point in the book, "Stop quibbling, get some guts, and have the courage to make big, bold arguments."

I absolutely feel this. I feel that the future importance of literature and literary studies comes from taking risks and not from playing it safe. And I do believe in making big arguments, when they're well-argued—big arguments that aren't well-argued are just hot air—because there's the possibility of doing so, and maybe the cultural opportunity to do so, even maybe the need to do so in the current conversation. Literature and literary reading does equip you to think in those terms, to think very widely over place and time and to think about the right words in the right order—those are Coleridge's notions about what makes language function so well.

I think we're ready, and have been ready for some time, for literature to be as it was for so many years, the place from which arguments about culture, art, humanity, the social, the religious, the spiritual, the political arise--all these things are embedded in literature, they are what literature is made of, as well as language. We can turn to literature, find in literature, material that discusses many of the things that are obsessing us and ought to be obsessing us about life today. Literature refers and literature performs, so it talks about things and it talks within them. It is very powerfully qualified to be a way that we discuss our world, because it has made our world.