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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

March 2015

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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

The Use and Abuse of Literature

I went to a fascinating author forum last night featuring Harvard English Professor Marjorie Garber, author of The Use and Abuse of Literature, and UW English Professor David Shields, author of Reality Hunger, at the University Bookstore. I don’t go to many of these kind of things, so I was interested in the forum as well as the topic. I wasn’t disappointed.

While some of the session was devoted to the deplorable state of contemporary writing, overall it was filled with hope and positive outlook. Since I’m currently involved in reading and evaluating 70 non-fiction essays, I could readily relate to moderator and Seattle Book Editor Mary Ann Gwinn’s comment about reading a memoir and waiting page after page for the moment when it would connect to the world outside the author’s life, only to be disappointed. I’ve often wondered what that illusive quality was that turned the story of a person’s life into something that I’d like to spend more time with than a cup of coffee.

As the conversation progressed through writing styles (“My writing students are so connected to the media-rich world they live in but write like they’re in the 18th century .”—David Shields), to the role of literature (“Literature doesn’t have to be useful in the sense of improving accounting methods. It is useful in creating and expanding our world-view”—Marjorie Garber), one concept arose that made the whole thing gel. It was a simple quote from Franz Kafka in a letter to Oskar Pollak in 1904:

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

That statement surely summarizes what is missing from the essays, articles, and short memoirs that I have been reading. “If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?” Kafka continues. This is most especially true of both fiction and narrative non-fiction (the memoir) and is as applicable to to short work as to long. If the paper I am reading doesn’t break through the frozen sea inside me, then it is missing that connection to the greater world that Gwinn mentioned.

I hold my own work up to a new standard now. Whether I can meet it remains to be seen.

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