Literature: What is it, what good does it do?

"The Use and Abuse of Literature" by Marjorie Garber (Pantheon, 320 pages, $28.95)

Marjorie Garber is a professor of English and of "visual and environmental studies" at Harvard University. She is the author of 16 books and has edited numerous volumes of criticism. Her 2004 work, "Shakespeare After All," received a number of awards.

Her most recent work, "The Use and Abuse of Literature," is an attempt to answer one of the most basic questions about literature: What is it and what good does it do?

Of course, in this modern age, the question of literature is also a question of cultural survival. What is the future of literature in a society like ours which seems, at times, overwhelmed by spectacle?

Does literature make us happier, more ethical, or more articulate? Does it make us better citizens, companions, lovers, doctors? Does it make us more human? And what do we mean by literature these days when, for example, the National Endowment for the Arts has reported a disturbing drop in the number of Americans who read "literary" works. (The 2004 NEA survey is called "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.")

The NEA survey showed an alarming decline in reading in all age groups across the country, and especially among 18-to-24-year-olds. Women read more than men, though reading rates were declining among both men and women.

The decline in reading corresponds to a decline in civic participation across the board — charity work, cultural involvement in museums and performing arts, clubs and lodges.

The bulk of Garber's book is concerned with how we define or recognize literature and the phenomenological history of literature as a useful art. Garber defines how literature "means" through metaphor, allusion, and self-reflection, then investigates the general question of style and form.

Along the way, Garber examines what it means to read a poem, a graphic novel, a comic book, a long historical novel. She shows how Renaissance drama, once thought violent and scurrilous by the English aristocracy, slowly but surely became literature. After all, Shakespeare once wrote for the rabble, much as Stephen King does today.

Be forewarned: Garber's book is a serious work of criticism, not meant for the beach. But for those willing to patiently pursue critical questions involved in understanding the role of literature in our cultural history, it is a rewarding read.

And a further warning: There are no final answers. Literature is open-ended and, as Garber notes, closure an impossibility.