A vigorous, revealing collection about the pleasures and revelations of close reading, whether it involves words, books, biographies or ideas.
Renowned scholar Garber (English/Harvard Univ.; The Use and Abuse of Literature, 2011, etc.) is a deep thinker who never has to look far for inspiration—life and literature are full of untapped mysteries, and the more you slow down, the more you see. She finds large-scale drama in the small, abstract or arcane, reveling in how ordinary words keep secrets, how exclusive words (like genius) become clichés, how a rare edition of Hamlet can conceal hidden agendas and how historic figures become advertising “brands.” An essay on the word mad forges a credible connection between Mad magazine, the TV show Mad Men, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and that original mad man, Hamlet. Shakespeare recurs throughout the book; as she demonstrated in her massive guidebook Shakespeare After All (2004), he’s the lens through which Garber often sees the world. The same goes for the great critic F.O. Matthiessen, recalled here in a superb tribute focusing on how his background in Elizabethan studies prepared him to understand 19th-century American literature. The use of the phrase “honey trap” in newspaper accounts of Julian Assange’s rape trial leads to Winnie the Pooh and the possible anti-German bias of “hunny.” Tackling Coleridge’s “unfinished” poem “Kubla Khan,” Garber raises questions as to what it means for a work of art to be cut short. In a final essay, the author offers a stirring defense of the humanities as the division of the university that deliberately doesn’t solve problems; it wrestles with interpretations, not final answers.
The same goes for this intellectually generous and rewarding book. Like its many subjects, it repays the close attention it commands.