The Use and Abuse of Literature

“The future importance of literary studies–and, if we care about such things, its intellectual and cultural prestige both among the other disciplines and in the world–will come from taking risks, not from playing it safe.”

In The Use and Abuse of Literature, Harvard professor Marjorie Garber outlines the current state of literature–how it is used and misused and why. She covers everything from how to define literature, to whether the role of the reader is more important than that of the writer, to what constitutes use and abuse of literature. She poses many important questions for both writers and readers. Why study literature? Are books useful? Does literature hold a place in modern culture?

Garber structures her book perfectly–she allots a certain amount of time to each aspect of literature and (if there is some contention on the subject) equally lays out both sides of the argument. She uses hundreds of sources and examples to assist each point and always shows her reasoning clearly. For example, in the third chapter Garber attempts to define what is and isn’t literature. She first explains that literature has a different meaning for everyone because of taste. Yet even basic guidelines are difficult to determine. (For instance, how should we categorize graphic novels, ballads, and diaries?) Garber uses a section of this chapter to focus on The Diary of Anne Frank, which is counted by many as a literary work. However, it is usually studied in a historical context rather than analyzed for literary qualities. Garber concludes that literature is not defined by how a book is written, but by how it is studied. “Literature is a status rather than a quality. To say that a text or a body of work is literature means that it is regarded, studied, read, and analyzed in a literary way.”

A lot of the questions Garber asks are left unanswered. (For example, Is literature useful or useless?) Although this can be frustrating for the reader, there is a reason for it. She did not answer many of the questions because they had no answer.  She explains, “One of the defining characteristics of literature and literary study is to open questions, not to close them . . . the really interesting questions do not have final answers.” Garber even has a section in the introduction titled “On the Importance of Unanswerable Questions.”

I loved this book; however, this doesn’t mean I would recommend it to everyone. One must truly be interested in literature as a study to enjoy it. I would also recommend having prior experience reading the works of many famous authors (in order to understand the examples) and also have had at least high school level English classes (in order to understand the terminology).

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