With a heavy focus on the role of character in American politics and literature, Garber’s book sheds a necessary light on the often unrecognized influence of character in society. Although this work is not one to turn to for light-hearted pleasure or an easy read, it is a valuable addition to anyone’s reading list ... Garber’s discussion of character renders the term such a monumental force that it seems impossible to cover all aspects of its meaning. Still, she manages to successfully tap on the significance of character in almost every dimension ... Her criticisms are sharp yet logically supported in such a way that even the most conservative grandparent at a big family dinner couldn’t argue against them ... While sophisticated and filled to the brim with academic references, Garber’s book effectively makes the content accessible and interesting. Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession exemplifies Garber’s many areas of expertise, interacting well with other works to ultimately leave readers with a clarified perspective and new method of analyzing the complicated workings of society.
Character names at once an ideal or aspiration and an ineradicable mark; a state to be arrived at by will; and a condition requiring education, leadership, and propitious circumstance. 'Is character innate, learned, taught, or instilled? Are character traits fixed or changeable? Do they depend on heredity, on environment, on parents, teachers, mentors, or life experiences?' Garber asks versions of these questions throughout, but she considers them chiefly literary—that is, 'questions about the way something means, rather than what it means,' ... The strength of Garber’s book therefore lies less in adducing a present value for the concept than in her wide-ranging account of how we arrived at the confused and confusing things it has meant and means now ... Her account of character as a literary and cultural category, and how it has literally or figuratively been read in real or imaginary individuals, may well be the book’s strongest aspect. The modern understanding of character, she argues, is not just adjacent to, but actually derived from, fictional characters: their construction on the page, but also their concerns about the character of their peers ... The richness of this history is what makes Garber’s book fascinating, and also, perhaps, the reason she does not want to relinquish the idea at the last, and instead hopes that there is intellectual and ethical life in a word that has outlived its history.
Can an examination of the single word 'character' sustain a book of 383 pages and another 40-odd pages of endnotes? Turns out it can, and does so brilliantly in Marjorie Garber’s magisterial book on the word, its etymology, its altered meanings, its social ramifications. Best known for her work on Shakespeare, Ms. Garber from time to time departs her field to take on other, dare one say unlikely, subjects, among them sex and real estate, bisexuality, the love of dogs, and cross-dressing. Scholarly by training and savvy by instinct, she writes without any of the dampening jargon now common in academic prose and with an impressive respect for the complexity of her subject ... One understands Ms. Garber’s temptation to enliven her pages by these contemporary names, but her book loses some of its elevated tone in doing so ... These contemporary references also reveal Ms. Garber’s politics. In the five-stage illness known as Trump Derangement Syndrome, Ms. Garber, I should say, is at stage one. (At stage five, the mere mention of the name evokes unprintable epithets streaming from one’s foam-flecked lips, with seizure seeming not far off.)