The Magazine

The Reading Life

Pleasure, not duty, should bring us to books.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By MICAH MATTIX
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Americans have always prided themselves on being a practical, self-made people, suspicious of newfangled theories in foreign books. Early cultural heroes were worldly-wise figures like Daniel Boone and David Crockett, and bookishness was nearly the end of Ichabod Crane. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for his part, made a living telling Americans not to read. Yet, despite all our anti-intellectual bravado, the feeling that we should read books has never really been absent from our collective consciousness. The question is, which books to read, and how? For over 60 years now there has been no shortage of books answering these two questions. Here are the latest.

Picture of First edition of Moby-Dick

First edition of Moby-Dick

For Marjorie Garber, we should read “literature,” and her goal in The Use and Abuse of Literature is “to return literature to the center, rather than the periphery, of personal, educational, and professional life.” Garber notes that until 200 years ago, the word “literature” could be used as a possessed noun. Dr. Johnson, she remarks, once referred to Milton’s reading thus: “His literature was unquestionably great.” Garber wants to recapture this particular use of the term. “The result,” she writes, “of such a radical reorientation of our understanding of what it means to read, and to read literature, and to read in a ‘literary’ way, would be enormous.”

That “radical” is telling. Rather than returning to an older way of thinking about literature—for Johnson, another meaning of the term was belles lettres—Garber is interested in legitimizing (wonderful Marxist term) her egalitarian definition and “critical” approach. So what is literature for Garber? Better start with what it’s not. It’s not works that possess stylistic mastery, or works of redeeming social value, or works of particular genres (drama as opposed to graphic novels, for example), or works that embody certain unchanging truths about human nature, or even books taught at university. No, literature is whatever people agree to call literature for various “aesthetic, political, situational, and cultural” reasons. Oh, and it’s works that pose “unanswerable questions.”

Let’s take that last one. It is true enough that great works ask questions—questions that often lack facile answers. Yet it is patently false that great works only ask questions, or always lack “closure.” Closure is not the same as ending. For Garber, all works end but none have closure. Yet, if closure is satisfaction, clearly all works have some sort of closure—even if it is the satisfaction of the absence of it. That the absence of closure is satisfying to some was made abundantly clear to me when I suggested in a seminar a few years ago that closure was unavoidable. I was quickly silenced by dismissive scoffs and panicked evil eyes. All meanings are possible, of course, except that one. Garber ends her own book with a chapter entitled “The Impossibility of Closure,” and I’m sure she is aware of the not-too-subtle irony of this. But I wonder if she is aware of the deeper irony—of the fact that so many literary critics of Garber’s ilk, herself included, find this absence of closure so deeply satisfying, both intellectually and morally.

Garber ushers in all of the standard reasons for viewing literature in her egalitarian, relativistic way—works that were once thought trash are now considered masterpieces, notions of truth, beauty, and goodness are relative, and genres once associated with the masses are now part of highbrow literary culture—none of which hold up to close scrutiny. I’m no fan of the divide between high and low culture, but all cultures have made distinctions between more and less valuable artifacts in terms of complexity, nuance, truth, beauty, and so forth. No doubt what used to be considered trash is sometimes considered great, but it would be ridiculous to turn such exceptions into the rule. Even The Waste Land and Leaves of Grass were considered great by an insightful few when they were first published. It’s rare indeed for a work to go from absolute scorn to the status of masterpiece.

So if literature is whatever folks decide it is, what is the use of reading it for Garber? This is not a mere academic question anymore: The humanities, as Garber notes, are on the ropes, funding is shrinking, and French departments are disappearing left and right. Well, because literature is a social construct that asks “unanswerable questions.” To read it—or, as Garber would say, to have it—is to think of all of life in these terms. To think in a “literary” way is to view roles, morals, and religious beliefs as constructs. It is to become an enlightened materialist and social democrat. If only literary scholars would begin thinking about literature in this way, the humanities (Garber believes) would be saved.