Monday, February 27, 2012
Book Notes: February 19-25
So, I kept sighing and grumbling throughout reading Marjorie Garber's The Use and Abuse of Literature. When those frustrated noises did not elicit a query from Jason, I flat out groused. "Aargh!"
"What? What is it?" he looked up, startled, from his Kindle screen.
"This book! It's driving me nuts! I just don't get where the author's going with this."
"Well, why don't you read something else?"
But, I can be terribly noble and stubborn about completing insignificant things, so I shook my head. "Nah. I'm going to finish it. But, I can't help wondering whether it's poorly written and constructed, or whether I'm just too dense to get it."
"Well, I'm sure that's not the case. If there is a book whose point you cannot fathom, I would say it is definitely because it was not written well. You thrive on tricky texts and idea-rich content."
That's one of the reasons I married this man, folks. Like Mr. Darcy, he loves me not only for my fine eyes and impertinence, but for the liveliness of my mind. Not that I was fishing for intellectual reassurance there. OK, maybe a little. But, I was feeling vulnerable, because this book was so strange.
Prof. Garber begins her work with the alarming news from a 2002 Census survey that reported that only 45% of respondents had read some fiction in their leisure time (she does not include information about upon what sort of span of time respondents were reflecting -- one year? one season? a decade? a lifetime?), 12% had read some poetry, 4% had read a play. Ooh goody! I thought as I checked the book out of the library. A diatribe against non-reading America and a call to immerse as a nation again in the world of books! But no. Not really.
She uses the survey results to launch her theme about the "use and abuse" of literature. First of all, why in the survey would Agatha Christie's books be considered literature and Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire not be? I can get on board with that. Many works of non-fiction clearly deserve the laudatory designation of literature, and, just as clearly, many works of fiction do not (unlike Prof. Garber, I have no compunction at all in dismissing works based upon my own or putative consideration of their quality. I have no need to be democratic in my distinctions).
So, then she goes on into the changing meaning over time of the words "literary" and "literature." Fair enough. Then, on to the money lines: "But what is the use of literature?" "Why read literature?" "Why study literature?" Ought we to devote time (always a sparse resource) to literature because it is inherently worthy, or because it makes us to be better, richer, more complete in some way? Is it enough simply to appreciate the artistry without (to use a quote I love) "dissecting the butterfly's wing?" These are the questions that must confront at some point the aware reader. So, I looked forward to the rest of the book.
And, in parts, it was quite good. Unfortunately, those parts were separated by a meandering sort of verbosity that it was almost like an Easter egg hunt to pull the colored treasures from amidst the weeds. Chapter the second, "Use and Abuse," was a chore and dived far deeper into the battle between literary critics and non-critics who wrote about literature than I wished to go. And so it went on. Important and new things to consider mixed in with sigh-and-grumble-inducing sidebars. The tone was an odd mixture of breezy, casual contemporary and overly academic.
Here are some more chapter titles and my snapshot impressions from the ideas therein:
"The Pleasures of the Canon" -- it's not enough to read the great books; you must study them and consider their sources and allusions for full appreciation; memorization cannot hurt, either
"What Isn't Literature" -- watch what you condemn today as unworthy of pursuit; it may be tomorrow's classic work
"What's Love Got to Do with It?" -- is loving books enough to fully appreciate them? How important to literary criticism is the actual love of the act of reading? Not all that important, apparently.
"So You Want to Read a Poem" -- I don't.
"Why Literature is Always Contemporary" -- probably my favorite idea in the book; books are always read in the present and always read for the first time, because the reader herself is an active part in the process of literature
"Truth and Lie in a Literary Sense" -- our collective, human desire that the most extraordinary and beautiful or gut-wrenching and horrific situations somehow "be real" is at the core of most non-fiction literary hoaxes
"Mixed Metaphors" -- I ended up skipping over most of this chapter, as it was mainly about poetry, which I find, with few exceptions, wholly annoying
"The Impossibility of Closure" -- writing good endings is hard; but, ending my reading of this book was easy.
There is a little feeling of betrayal when you have enjoyed one book by an author, only to be disappointed by his or her next offering. I used Prof. Garber's Shakespeare After All when I took a course on Shakespeare many years ago. I found it very readable and helpful and thoroughly enjoyed her analyses of the plays. I do not know what I was expecting with The Use and Abuse of Literature. I guess I was thinking there would be more than just the modicum of pleasure I received. I could write more, but I have already spent more time than I had planned on this book, and will happily return it to the library this afternoon.