When Marjorie Garber chaired the National Book Award committee for nonfiction in 2010, she had 500 books to read and a myriad of questions.
Garber, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies, immediately got on the horn with her committee members and asked: “What are the criteria? How are we going to come to an agreement?”
“We set down two criteria, which sound very vague, but which were absolutely central for us,” recalled Garber. “The book had to be well-written. It could not merely be well-researched, but it had to be pleasurable, moving, engrossing to read. And, secondly, we wanted it to be something that would last. We wanted it to be a book that we thought people would read again.”
Thinking critically about literature is nothing new for Garber. She knew even as a teenager traveling to see T.S. Eliot speak at the 92nd Street Y that she wanted to be part of “the big conversation that involved both critics and writers.”
“I never thought of going to Eliot’s poetry reading — though I was a great admirer of his poetry — but I very much wanted to hear him talk about other poets and about his criticism,” she said.
Her new work, “The Use and Abuse of Literature,” is about “why we read literature, why we study it, and why it doesn’t need to have an application someplace else in order to be definitive in its talking about human life and culture.”
Dubbing her catalog a “wild and woolly variety,” Garber said: “I’ve written a bunch of books on Shakespeare; I have a book on houses, on dogs, some books on eroticism.”
But, she said, “I’ve always felt there was a very common thread in the work that I do. All my books are really about love, in one way or another, and no book more so than this book — a book that I would say I started writing when I started reading.”
Literature should be about how something means, rather than just what it means, according to Garber. “If I were to ask you what a novel by Dickens means, you could probably say something to me about it, but it wouldn’t be very satisfying because it’s not about a sound bite, it’s not about boiling it down,” she said.
As for the National Book Award, Garber’s committee awarded performer Patti Smith for her memoir, “Just Kids,” which chronicles Smith’s move to New York at 21 and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
“It was a fabulous snapshot — and very spare — and one of the things that made it as good as it was, was the things that it left out,” she said. “We did not hear about Mapplethorpe’s illness, about his early death, about the fame of these people; we learned about what it was like to be just kids, at this moment.”
Garber said that she’s more interested in what “the literary” is, more than what constitutes literature.
“The literary is, for me, the more general area of that which we read with literary intention, that which we read in order to enjoy the language, the structure, the way it sounds, the way it brings characters to life, the way it moves us, the big topics that human beings have always written about in literature — love, life, grief, war, loss,” she said.
“And where there is a reader, there is a critic.”