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.
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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?