Marjorie Garber, professor of English and visual and environmental studies at Harvard, does not rest on her laurels. She has authored or coauthored more than a dozen books on a strange and impressive range of topics (Shakespeare After All, Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses, and Dog Love, among others), and her latest essay collection has a stark, striking cover and a great deal to say.
Though it clocks in at right around 200 pages—practically emaciated in the annals of academic publishing—Loaded Words is far from a light read. It may take you a couple of chapters, as it did me, to ease into the dense prose: Dr. Garber's decades of scholarship lend themselves to a thicket of citations, footnotes, and quotation marks around common terms to indicate their grander significance ("data," "beliefs," "our"). But if you stay the course, she will prove very approachable, even delightful, in her unabashed passion for language and history ("I own Hamlet T-shirts in a variety of fetching styles").
Consider the lovely passage in which she first meets the rare Cranach Press edition of Hamlet, published in 1930: "When I saw the book, I was enraptured…I touched the handmade paper. I looked at the type and the typeface…. It was like falling for a movie star, or a rock star." Garber calls this her "boing-boing" feeling, and anyone who considers literature a tactile experience knows exactly what that means. I've fallen hard for a few handsome books in my day.
Loaded Words also shines when the author brings contemporary politics and culture into the conversation, as in her insightful essays on critic F.O. Matthiessen, who counted himself as married to his longtime partner 75 years before Prop 8 hit the ballot; and "Our Genius Problem," wherein the modern "genius" designation extends to football coaches and entrepreneurs as often as to scientific and literary pioneers.
You'll need your thinking cap to navigate Loaded Words—or perhaps your velvet thinking tam. If you set it at just the right jaunty angle, you'll be in for a treat.