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Books Will Survive The 'Use And Abuse of Literature'

The Use and Abuse of Literature by Marjorie Garber

When literature makes the headlines these days, it seems to be only bad news: books being declared "obscene" and removed from school library shelves, one expert after another telling us the rise of comic books and novels written in the language of the text message is destroying the English language, studies proving that no one reads anymore anyway... You'd think our literary culture is at a crisis point, and from here our nation will descend into illiteracy and intellectual decrepitude.

Marjorie Garber claims in The Use and Abuse of Literature that none of these conversations have anything to do with today's society; since the invention of written language we've been fighting over who was using it correctly and who was ruining it for the rest of us. Garber, a professor of English at Harvard and author of several books about Shakespeare and literary studies, draws from hundreds of years of history to prove that literature always seems to be at a crisis point — and it always recovers.

In fact, it's proof of literature's strength and lasting value that a 19th century writer like Jane Austen can still speak to the contemporary love lives of her readers, and that a book like the Diary of Anne Frank can still cause a ruckus among protective parents. That fight over comic books? The same arguments were made about Shakespeare, because, it was suggested, Elizabethan drama wasn't real literature. (Early debates also routinely happened over novels, ballads and books written by women.) People have been trying to ban books for ages, from the 18th century's Fanny Hill and the court cases against Lady Chatterley's Lover and Ulysses, all the way to Harry Potter. "[Literature's] greatness... is enhanced rather than undercut" by these challenges, Garber argues. There will always be stubborn, scandalized readers trying to define what literature is, but the greats will endure. Shakespeare's plays started out as low class trash, and now they're considered the high point of the world's cultural output.

Marjorie B. Garber has written sixteen books that cover Shakespeare, literary theory, and the arts, including <em>Shakespeare After All</em>. She is a professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard.
/ Bruce Cratsley
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Marjorie B. Garber has written sixteen books that cover Shakespeare, literary theory, and the arts, including <em>Shakespeare After All</em>. She is a professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard.

It may look as though reading is declining in importance. After all, yesterday's readers are today's video game players or text message obsessives. But the fact that these controversies still crop up — for example, over a new version of Mark Twain's Huck Finn being released with every instance of the n-word changed to "slave" — is, Garber believes, proof of literature's power. Books are labeled as dangerous "precisely because [they] can enrich the mind, challenge, disturb, and change one's thinking," she writes. So let the naysayers bemoan the shifting tides. Literature has been through much, much worse.

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