In a cogent study, Shakespeare expert Garber (Visual and Environmental Studies/Harvard Univ.; Shakespeare and Modern Culture, 2008, etc.) wonders: Why read literature?
The ancient debate rages on: What is the purpose of literature? Does reading make us better citizens, or is literature’s overall meaninglessness its greatest purpose? And what is literature anyway? Garber sifts through the salient arguments by writers over the centuries—including, among dozens of others, Plato, Horace, Shakespeare, Wilde, Marx and Václev Havel—to get at the deep-seated controversy involving literature’s contribution to human edification. The author ultimately champions a work’s sheer ability to get a rise out of the reader, to evoke questions and prompt risky, slippery, active responses. She looks at the so-called “canon” and how it has changed over time, not only in terms of who is included (e.g., the changing fortune of John Donne), but what passes for worthy literature—a ballad, a diary, a sexy novel like Lolita? Garber considers whether the study of literature actually kills the pleasure of reading for the ordinary reader, how reading a poem closely can relay the startling inspiration experienced by the author (and maybe change the world), how a work withstands the scrutiny of time (“literature is always contemporary because it is read by contemporary readers”) and whether it matters that a work purporting to be “real” (such as a biography that slips into literary projection) turns out to be pure fiction. Finally, the author attempts a valiant resurrection of the well-turned metaphor—the “imaginative leaps” that actually render meaning—and the not-terribly-reassuring conclusion that the process of reading simply defies closure: “never ending, always opening outward into another scene.”
Chockablock with examples and in-depth analysis, this can be savored by academics and lay readers alike.