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Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?" is the crucial question with which renowned literary critic Harold Bloom begins this impassioned book on the pleasures and benefits of reading well. For more than forty years, Bloom has transformed college students into lifelong readers with his unrivaled love for literature. Now, at a time when faster and easier electronic media threatens to eclipse the practice of reading, Bloom draws on his experience as critic, teacher, and prolific reader to plumb the great books for their sustaining wisdom.
Shedding all polemic, Bloom addresses the solitary reader, who, he urges, should read for the purest of all reasons: to discover and augment the self. His ultimate faith in the restorative power of literature resonates on every page of this infinitely rewarding and important book.
|Edition description:||1 TOUCHSTO|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, Berg Professor of English at New York University, and a former Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. His more than twenty books include Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, The Western Canon, The Book of J, and his most recent work, Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages. He is a MacArthur Prize fellow; a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the recipient of many awards, including the Academy's Gold Medal for Criticism; and he holds honorary degrees from the universities of Rome and Bologna.
Hometown:New York, New York and New Haven, Connecticut
Date of Birth:July 11, 1930
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Cornell University, 1951; Ph.D., Yale University, 1955
Read an Excerpt
Prologue: Why Read?
It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. How they read, well or badly, and what they read, cannot depend wholly upon themselves, but why they read must be for and in their own interest. You can read merely to pass the time, or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock. Bible readers, those who search the Bible for themselves, perhaps exemplify the urgency more plainly than readers of Shakespeare, yet the quest is the same. One of the uses of reading is to prepare ourselves for change, and the final change alas is universal.
I turn to reading as a solitary praxis, rather than as an educational enterprise. The way we read now, when we are alone with ourselves, retains considerable continuity with the past, however it is performed in the academies. My ideal reader (and lifelong hero) is Dr. Samuel Johnson, who knew and expressed both the power and the limitation of incessant reading. Like every other activity of the mind, it must satisfy Johnson's prime concern, which is with "what comes near to ourself, what we can put to use." Sir Francis Bacon, who provided some of the ideas that Johnson put to use, famously gave the advice: "Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider." I add to Bacon and Johnson a third sage of reading, Emerson, fierce enemy of history and of all historicisms, who remarked that the best books "impress us with the conviction, that one nature wrote and the same reads." Let me fuse Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson into a formula of how to read: find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and that addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time's tyranny. Pragmatically that means, first find Shakespeare, and let him find you. If King Lear is fully to find you, then weigh and consider the nature it shares with you; its closeness to yourself. I do not intend this as an idealism, but as a pragmatism. Putting the tragedy to use as a complaint against patriarchy is to forsake your own prime interests, particularly as a young woman, which sounds rather more ironical than it is. Shakespeare, more than Sophocles, is the inescapable authority upon intergenerational conflict, and more than anyone else, upon the differences between women and men. Be open to a full reading of King Lear, and you will understand better the origins of what you judge to be patriarchy.
Ultimately we read as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. We experience such augmentations as pleasure, which may be why aesthetic values have always been deprecated by social moralists, from Plato through our current campus Puritans. The pleasures of reading indeed are selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone else's life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.
The sorrow of professional reading is that you recapture only rarely the pleasure of reading you knew in youth, when books were a Hazlittian gusto. The way we read now partly depends upon our distance, inner or outer, from the universities, where reading is scarcely taught as a pleasure, in any of the deeper senses of the aesthetics of pleasure. Opening yourself to a direct confrontation with Shakespeare at his strongest, as in King Lear, is never an easy pleasure, whether in youth or in age, and yet not to read King Lear fully (which means without ideological expectations) is to be cognitively as well as aesthetically defrauded. A childhood largely spent watching television yields to an adolescence with a computer, and the university receives a student unlikely to welcome the suggestion that we must endure our going hence even as our going hither: ripeness is all. Reading falls apart, and much of the self scatters with it. All this is past lamenting, and will not be remedied by any vows or programs. What is to be done can only be performed by some version of elitism, and that is now unacceptable, for reasons both good and bad. There are still solitary readers, young and old, everywhere, even in the universities. If there is a function of criticism at the present time, it must be to address itself to the solitary reader, who reads for herself, and not for the interests that supposedly transcend the self.
Value, in literature as in life, has much to do with the idiosyncratic, with the excess by which meaning gets started. It is not accidental that historicists critics who believe all of us to be overdetermined by societal history should also regard literary characters as marks upon a page, and nothing more. Hamlet is not even a case history if our thoughts are not at all our own. I come then to the first principle if we are to restore the way we read now, a principle I appropriate from Dr. Johnson: Clear your mind of cant. Your dictionary will tell you that cant in this sense is speech overflowing with pious platitudes, the peculiar vocabulary of a sect or coven. Since the universities have empowered such covens as "gender and sexuality" and "multiculturalism," Johnson's admonition thus becomes "Clear your mind of academic cant." A university culture where the appreciation of Victorian women's underwear replaces the appreciation of Charles Dickens and Robert Browning sounds like the outrageousness of a new Nathanael West, but is merely the norm. A side product of such "cultural poetics" is that there can be no new Nathanael West, for how could such an academic culture sustain parody? The poems of our climate have been replaced by the body stockings of our culture. Our new Materialists tell us that they have recovered the body for historicism, and assert that they work in the name of the Reality Principle. The life of the mind must yield to the death of the body, yet that hardly requires the cheerleading of an academic sect.
Clear your mind of cant leads on to the second principle of restoring reading: Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read. Self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit: there are no ethics of reading. The mind should be kept at home until its primal ignorance has been purged; premature excursions into activism have their charm, but are time-consuming, and for reading there will never be enough time. Historicizing, whether of past or present, is a kind of idolatry, an obsessive worship of things in time. Read therefore by the inner light that John Milton celebrated and that Emerson took as a principle of reading, which can be our third: A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light. Wallace Stevens, perhaps forgetting his source, wrote marvelous variations upon that metaphor, but the original Emersonian phrasing makes for a clearer statement of the third principle of reading. You need not fear that the freedom of your development as a reader is selfish, because if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others. I ponder the letters that I receive from strangers these last seven or eight years, and generally I am too moved to reply. Their pathos, for me, is that all too often they testify to a yearning for canonical literary study that universities disdain to fulfill. Emerson said that society cannot do without cultivated men and women, and prophetically he added: "The people, and not the college, is the writer's home." He meant strong writers, representative men and women, who represented themselves, and not constituencies, since his politics were those of the spirit.
The largely forgotten function of a university education is caught forever in Emerson's address "The American Scholar," when he says of the scholar's duties: "They may all be comprised in self-trust." I take from Emerson also my fourth principle of reading: One must be an inventor to read well. "Creative reading" in Emerson's sense I once named as "misreading," a word that persuaded opponents that I suffered from a voluntary dyslexia. The ruin or blank that they see when they look at a poem is in their own eye. Self-trust is not an endowment, but is the Second Birth of the mind, which cannot come without years of deep reading. There are no absolute standards for the aesthetic. If you wish to maintain that Shakespeare's ascendancy was a product of colonialism, then who will bother to confute you? Shakespeare after four centuries is more pervasive than ever he was before; they will perform him in outer space, and on other worlds, if those worlds are reached. He is not a conspiracy of Western culture; he contains every principle of reading, and he is my touchstone throughout this book. Borges attributed this universalism to Shakespeare's apparent selflessness, but that quality is a large metaphor for Shakespeare's difference, which finally is cognitive power as such. We read, frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own.
Since ideology, particularly in its shallower versions, is peculiarly destructive of the capacity to apprehend and appreciate irony, I suggest that the recovery of the ironic might be our fifth principle for the restoration of reading. Think of the endless irony of Hamlet, who when he says one thing almost invariably means another, frequently indeed the opposite of what he says. But with this principle, I am close to despair, since you can no more teach someone to be ironic than you can instruct them to become solitary. And yet the loss of irony is the death of reading, and of what had been civilized in our natures.
I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.
Women and men can walk differently, but unless we are regimented we all tend to walk somewhat individually. Dickinson, master of the precarious Sublime, can hardly be apprehended if we are dead to her ironies. She is walking the only path available, "from Plank to Plank," but her slow caution ironically juxtaposes with a titanism in which she feels "The Stars about my Head," though her feet very nearly are in the sea. Not knowing whether the next step will be her "final inch" gives her "that precarious Gait" she will not name, except to tell us that "some" call it Experience. She had read Emerson's essay "Experience," a culmination much in the way "Of Experience" was for his master Montaigne, and her irony is an amiable response to Emerson's opening: "Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none." The extreme, for Dickinson, is the not knowing whether the next step is the final inch. "If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know!" Emerson's further reverie differs from Dickinson's in temperament, or as she words it, in gait. "All things swim and glitter," in Emerson's realm of experience, and his genial irony is very different from her irony of precariousness. Yet neither is an ideologue, and they live still in the rival power of their ironies.
At the end of the path of lost irony is a final inch, beyond which literary value will be irrecoverable. Irony is only a metaphor, and the irony of one literary age can rarely be the irony of another, yet without the renaissance of an ironic sense more than what we once called imaginative literature will be lost. Thomas Mann, most ironic of this century's great writers, seems to be lost already. New biographies of him appear, and are reviewed almost always on the basis of his homoeroticism, as though he can be saved for our interest only if he can be certified as gay, and so gain a place in our curriculum. That is akin to studying Shakespeare mostly for his apparent bisexuality, but the vagaries of our current counter-Puritanism seem limitless. Shakespeare's ironies, as we would expect, are the most comprehensive and dialectical in all of Western literature, and yet they do not always mediate his characters' passions for us, so vast and intense is their emotional range. Shakespeare therefore will survive our era; we will lose his ironies, and hold on to the rest of him. But in Thomas Mann every emotion, narrative or dramatic, is mediated by an ironic aestheticism; to teach Death in Venice or Disorder and Early Sorrow to most current undergraduates, even the gifted, is nearly impossible. When authors are destroyed by history, we rightly call their work period pieces, but when they are made unavailable through historicized ideology, I think that we encounter a different phenomenon.
Irony demands a certain attention span, and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise. Find now what comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering, and it very likely will be irony, even if many of your teachers will not know what it is, or where it is to be found. Irony will clear your mind of the cant of the ideologues, and help you to blaze forth as the scholar of one candle.
Going on seventy, one doesn't want to read badly any more than live badly, since time will not relent. I don't know that we owe God or nature a death, but nature will collect anyway, and we certainly owe mediocrity nothing, whatever collectivity it purports to advance or at least represent.
Because my ideal reader, for half a century, has been Dr. Samuel Johnson, I turn next to my favorite passage in his Preface to Shakespeare:
This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.
To read human sentiments in human language you must be able to read humanly, with all of you. You are more than an ideology, whatever your convictions, and Shakespeare speaks to as much of you as you can bring to him. That is to say: Shakespeare reads you more fully than you can read him, even after you have cleared your mind of cant. No writer before or since Shakespeare has had anything like his control of perspectivism, which outleaps any contextualizations we impose upon the plays. Johnson, admirably perceiving this, urges us to allow Shakespeare to cure us of our "delirious ecstasies." Let me extend Johnson by also urging us to recognize the phantoms that the deep reading of Shakespeare will exorcise. One such phantom is the Death of the Author; another is the assertion that the self is a fiction; yet another is the opinion that literary and dramatic characters are so many marks upon a page. A fourth phantom, and the most pernicious, is that language does the thinking for us.
Still, my love for Johnson, and for reading, turns me at last away from polemic, and towards a celebration of the many solitary readers I keep encountering, whether in the classroom or in messages I receive. We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers because they more than enlarge life. Pragmatically, they have become the Blessing, in its true Yahwistic sense of "more life into a time without boundaries." We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure. I am not exactly an erotics-of-reading purveyor, and a pleasurable difficulty seems to me a plausible definition of the Sublime, but a higher pleasure remains the reader's quest. There is a reader's Sublime, and it seems the only secular transcendence we can ever attain, except for the even more precarious transcendence we call "falling in love." I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and for considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.
Copyright © 2000 by Harold Bloom
Table of Contents
|Prologue: Why Read?||21|
|"Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands"||34|
|"The Lady with the Dog"||40|
|"Madame Tellier's Establishment"||43|
|"Hills Like White Elephants"||46|
|"God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen"||47|
|"The Snows of Kilimanjaro"||48|
|"A Sea Change"||50|
|"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"||52|
|"Good Country People"||52|
|"A View of the Woods"||53|
|"The Vane Sisters"||54|
|"Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis Tertius"||58|
|Housman, Blake, Landor, and Tennyson||70|
|"Into My Heart an Air That Kills"||71|
|"The Sick Rose"||71|
|"On His Seventy-fifth Birthday"||72|
|"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"||79|
|Song of Myself||89|
|Dickinson, Bronte, Popular Ballads, and "Tom O'Bedlam"||94|
|Poem 1260, "Because That You Are Going"||95|
|"Stanzas: Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning"||97|
|"Sir Patrick Spence"||99|
|"The Unquiet Grave"||102|
|Sonnet 121, "'Tis Better to Be Vile Than Vile Esteemed"||111|
|Sonnet 129, "Th' Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame"||113|
|Sonnet 144, "Two Loves I Have, of Comfort and Despair"||114|
|"A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal"||121|
|"My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold"||123|
|The Rime of the Ancient Mariner||124|
|Shelley and Keats||129|
|The Triumph of Life||129|
|"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"||134|
|III.||Novels, Part I|
|The Charterhouse of Parma||150|
|Crime and Punishment||166|
|The Portrait of a Lady||173|
|In Search of Lost Time||181|
|The Magic Mountain||187|
|The Importance of Being Earnest||224|
|V.||Novels, Part II|
|As I Lay Dying||239|
|The Crying of Lot 49||249|
|Song of Solomon||269|
|Epilogue: Completing the Work||277|
What People are Saying About This
To read Harold Bloom's commentaries... is like reading classics by flashes of lightning.
Reading Group Guide
1). Do you agree with the general "principles of reading" that Bloom advances in his Prologue? Are there any that you would add to these five?
2). Bloom deplores the trend of literary critical "schools of thought" being used as prisms through which to view literature, believing that "to read in the service of any ideology is not to read at all." Alternatively, Bloom believes that literary criticism should be "experiential and pragmatic, rather than theoretical." What "type" of critic is Bloom? Does he purposefully defy categorization? Does Bloom achieve his own critical aim of "making what is implicit in a book finely explicit"?
3). Discuss Bloom's contention that authors are deeply influenced by their literary forbears. What do you think, for example, of his assertion that all modern stories are either "Chekhovian" or "Borgesian" in nature? Do you think that writers have distinctly traceable "lineages"? True originality is a trait Bloom greatly admires, perhaps because he thinks it is so rare. Is there a modern story or novel of such uniqueness that you would argue it transcends Bloom's model of influence?
4). What would you call the "readings" Bloom offers throughout the book? Are they explications? Meditations? Appreciations? How would you describe Bloom's methodology? According to Bloom's beliefs, should an academic's approach to reading literature be essentially the same in nature as a layperson's?
5). Bloom laments the loss of aesthetic standards in assessing literary merit. What exactly are aesthetic criteria? What does it mean to read aesthetically? What measures does Bloom apply to the works he discusses? Does he value different qualities in poems, stories, novels, and plays, or do his standards apply equally across genres?
6). Bloom defends deep reading as a "selfish pleasure" and believes that one of its primary purposes is "the cultivation of an individual consciousness." Do you agree with Bloom that reading is and should be a selfish, solitary act?
7). Bloom warns against imposing upon fiction the "burden of improving society" and says that we should not read to "expiate social guilt or reform bad institutions." What exactly does Bloom mean by this? What does he fear we will lose by reading or writing fiction with an eye toward "political correctness"?
8). Great fictive characters, Bloom contends, "become presences as intimate and yet ultimately as enigmatic as your dearest friends." To what extent can one equate characters with real people? What literary characters have you most loved or identified with? Which do you feel you came to know most intimately through the act of reading? Have fictional characters had as profound an influence on you as certain friends or family members?
9). Bloom says: "I venture that it is impossible to listen to other people the way we listen to a very good book." What exactly does Bloom mean by this? Do you agree with him?
10). Bloom encourages readers to memorize poems. Have you ever memorized a poem? What effect did memorization have on your understanding of verse? Bloom also recommends re-reading novels of particular merit. What books, if any, have you re-read and why? Did you find your second reading to be a vastly different experience? If so, in what ways?
11). Of which poem, story, novel or play did you think Bloom offers the most astute or illuminating reading? Which works did you feel most compelled to revisit or read for the first time because of Bloom's praise?
12). Do you think you will read differently now that you have read Bloom's book?
What inspired you to write How To Read and Why?
With both The Western Canon published back in 1994 and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human published in 1998, I had toured extensively and found an astonishing response from the audiences I addressed and from people who talked to me and people for whom I was signing books. To this day, I am deluged with mail from people who say how desperately pleased they are to find that someone is indeed writing about literature for the common reader, that someone does not try, as it were, to do the French thing, in regard to literary study or the many ideological modes which I will not mention, which are now practiced in the Anglo-American Universities and college world.
The more I thought about the response to these two books I had written, the more I realized that neither of them had really addressed a need which I felt highly qualified and highly driven to meet. And that is, a self-help book, indeed, an inspiration book, which would not only encourage solitary readers of all kinds all over the world to go on reading for themselves, but also support them in their voyages of self-discovery through reading. [How To Read and Why is meant to] give readers a human aid to their own reading, not to tell them what to read, because to some extent I had done that in The Western Canon, but to tell them indeed how to read, and even more than how, to remind them why we have to go on reading, why indeed it's a kind of death in life if we yield completely to what William Wordsworth called the "tyranny of the bodily eye," that is to say, the tyranny of the visual at a time when we are so bombarded by information of a visual kind.
What do you think is the single greatest threat to the future of reading?
I used to believe, until fairly recently, that the greatest threat was both visual over-stimulation television, films, computers, virtual reality, and so on and also auditory over-stimulation, you know, what I call rock religion, MTV, rap, all of these mindless burstings of the eardrums. And, of course, I think what has happened to education on every level, from grade school through graduate school throughout the English speaking world, is an increasing menace to disinterested and passionate reading, reading not governed by ideological and other social considerations.
But more recently, I have reached the very sad conclusion that what most threatens the future of reading is the, I will not say probability I would become very wretched indeed but the real possibility of the disappearance of the book. I begin to fear that what it means to be alone with a book the various ways in which you can hold a book in your own hands and turn the pages and write in the margins when you are moved to do so, underline or emphasize when you are moved to do so might almost vanish, that the technological overkill of the latest developments we are moving towards, the e-book sort of thing which Mr. Gates and others are proclaiming might perhaps put the book in jeopardy. And I really don't think that without the book we are going to survive. You can have a technological elite without the book, but you cannot finally have a humanely educated portion of the public that is able to teach to others. As a matter of fact, I think what you will really have is the death of humane teaching, as such.
What can people get from reading that they can't from movies or television?
I would say not less than everything. You can get a great deal of information, as such, from screens of one sort or another. You can dazzle yourself with images, if that is your desire. But how you are to grow in self-knowledge, become more introspective, discover the authentic treasures of insight and of compassion and of spiritual discernment and of a deep bond to other solitary individuals, how in fact can like call out to like without reading, I do not know. I suppose if I were to put it in almost a common denominator sort of way, I would say that you cannot even begin to heal the worst aspects of solitude, which are loneliness and potential madness, by visual experience of any kind, particularly the sort of mediated visual experience that you get off a screen of whatever sort. If you are to really encounter a human otherness which finds an answering chorus in yourself, which can become an answering chorus to your own sense of inward isolation, there truly is no authentic place to turn except to a book.
You talk in the book about contemporary readers having difficulty comprehending irony in literature of earlier times. Why do you think this is a problem?
Irony by definition is the saying of one thing while meaning another, sometimes indeed quite the opposite of what overtly you are saying. It's very difficult to have the highest kind of imaginative literature from Homer through Don DeLillo, as it were, and entirely avoid irony. There is the tragic irony, which one confronts everywhere in Shakespeare, that the audience, the auditor, and the reader are aware of something in the character or predicament or inward affects, emotions of the protagonist or protagonists, that the heroes and heroines are totally unaware of themselves.
It's very difficult to convey this quality of irony by purely visual means. Visual ironies tend to fall flat or they vulgarize very quickly or they become grotesque. Really subtle irony of any sort demands literary language. The way in which meaning tends to wander in any really interesting literary text, so that the reader is challenged to go into exile with it, catch up with it, learn how to construe it, make it her very own, is essentially a function of irony. If we totally lose our ability to recognize and to understand irony, then we will be doomed to a kind of univocal discourse, which is alright I suppose for politicians' speeches and perhaps for certain representatives of popular religion, but will leave us badly defrauded.
What books or poems have you returned to most often over the course of your life?
The primary answer has to be Shakespeare. Even if I did not teach Shakespeare all the time, I would always be re-reading Shakespeare, reciting Shakespeare to myself, brooding about the great plays. I tend personally to re-read the major lyric poets of the English language from Shakespeare's sonnets through Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. That's what most vivifies and pleases me. I re-read Jonathan Swift's A Tale of the Tub twice a year, but that's to punish myself. It is, I think, the most powerful, nonfictive prose in the English language, but it's a kind of vehement satire upon visionary projectors as it were, like myself, and so I figure it is a good tonic and corrective for me. I re-read Proust every year because In Search of Lost Time is just about my favorite novel, except maybe for Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, which I also tend to re-read every year or so. I re-read Dickens all the time, especially my peculiar favorite which I've loved since I was a child, The Pickwick Papers. I re-read Oscar Wilde nearly every day of my life, or I recite Oscar to myself, but that's a personal enthusiasm which perhaps surpasses his literary worth, very large as that indeed is. I read Dr. Samuel Johnson all the time because he is my great hero as a literary critic and I have tried to model myself upon him all my life. But this answer would be endless, since I do very little besides teach and read and write.
What is your favorite book to teach?
Oh, most certainly, Shakespeare. Teaching either the high tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, or the greatest of the comedies, Twelfth Night, As you LikeIt, A Midsummer Night's Dream, or what may be, I think, the finest, most representative instance of what Shakespeare can do, the two parts of King Henry IV, taken together, considered as one play, in which, of course, the central figure is my particular literary hero, Sir John Falstaff. And the so-called late romances, which are really tragi-comedies, particularly The Tempest and The Winter's Tale.
Did you have a teacher who was a particular inspiration to you?
Oh yes. I was deeply inspired and helped greatly, humanly, by three of my teachers in particular. When I was at Cornell undergraduate, I came very much under the influence and the kind guidance of M. H. Abrams, Meyer Howard Abrams, who I'm delighted to say is still alive. He's 88 years old now, one of the leading, perhaps the leading scholar of English Romantic poetry in the 20th century.
Then when I became a graduate student at Yale, I was much under the influence of Frederick A. Pottle, who was a Johnson and Boswell scholar and a Romantic scholar, and is remembered best now for writing a large two-volume definitive biography of James Boswell and for his work on the Boswell papers. He was a tremendous steadying influence upon me. I was a sort of wild young man with fierce opinions of every sort and congenitally unable to see anybody else's point of view. Mr. Pottle was sufficiently strenuous in urging a proper care upon me for the really civilized and well thought-through and valid opinions of others, not just any opinions. But I think he did me a vast amount of good.
The third person would be the late dean of Yale College, William Clyde Devane, a great Browning scholar. I was his student also, but mostly he was too busy during those 25 years, first when I was a graduate student and then when I was a younger and beginning-to-be-middle-aged person on the faculty. He was too busy running Yale College to give me much direct instruction, but he took a great interest in me, defended me against my Yale enemies, as Professor Pottle did, and I had plenty of enemies, some of whom I no doubt deserved and some of whom I didn't deserve. But he was a fountain of wisdom. He was a man of enormous worldly insight, but of still an idealistic kind, and he took the long view. Even if I never quite learned from him to take as long a view as William Clyde Devane could take, he had a strong effect upon me.
I suppose also, you know, I would say that Meyer Howard Abrams and Frederick Albert Pottle and William Clyde Devane were, in their very different way, very wise men. I say at the beginning of How to Read and Why, "information is readily available to us; where shall wisdom be found," which is an ancient Biblical question. I found wisdom in those three teachers in particular. While I'm not trying to be a guru or anything of that sort, any more than they tried to be or actually were gurus, any hard-won wisdom of my own comes primarily from what they started in me and from the deep reading of what by now must be literally hundreds of thousands of books ingesting them, memorizing them, voluntarily and involuntarily, pondering them, always turning them over in my mind.
How did you choose which works to discuss in the book?
As I made very clear in one of the earlier sentences of the book, there is nothing prescriptive about the book. It isn't trying to tell you what to read; it is really trying to tell you how to read and why to read. It is a self-help and inspirational kind of manual, as it were. And as I say very clearly at the beginning, whether I'm dealing with any of my five categories, European novels, American novels, short stories, poetry, or plays, I can only give samples. I tried to take samples that were really in some deep way central to the experience of the reader, but that were also to some degree, varied, and above all else accessible. I wanted them to be accessible stories, accessible novels, very familiar works if possible, or familiar to many readers, if not to most or all readers. (I would have to admit that Shelley's The Triumph of Life may be a little too difficult for the purposes of the book, but I felt that by then one could try a really difficult poem on the reader.)
But it's very, very difficult to try to write such a book and keep it to about whatever this is, 285-or-so pages, and not seem to be purely arbitrary or purely personal in the books that you choose. Thus some of my friends who are poets and novelists and playwrights, though they like the book, have questioned why one writer is there rather than another, and I'm not always sure that I can give an answer that will altogether satisfy or appease them. To some extent, the choices had to be, in part, arbitrary. But I think they are all of them representative. I think they are almost all of them accessible to a reader with good will who is willing to work a little. I think that all of them are beautiful, to use a term that we should not let go of. They are all of them aesthetically rewarding to the highest degree. And I think that all of them have either a great wisdom or, quite manifestly, a great unwisdom, which teaches you a good deal also.
When I re-read the book in proof the other day, I realized that without meaning to do so, I had at one time or another, whether I was dealing with novelists, storywriters, poets, or dramatists, found myself reflecting upon and trying to say something useful about the quite palpable influence of Shakespeare upon all of these writers. And he has been, of course, in all European languages, probably with the exception of French, the inescapable influence, the inescapable presence for the last four centuries, since he is, after all, the largest and most powerful writer that we know.
In the prologue you write, "Ultimately we read in order to strengthen the self." As you have noticed, self-help books top bestseller lists. How can reading great literature provide an alternative to these manuals?
In the self-help and inspirational category, to be perfectly fair, most things that are published, or that sell widely, are really intellectually and spiritually rather thin. They don't challenge a reader in any way, and I'm afraid frequently tend to flatter a reader in preconceptions and misconceptions and easy adjustments to one's own self. So the question is, how can one possibly hope to vie with, to compete with, self-help books of that sort in presenting a book on how to read and why. I suppose pragmatically is the only answer I can give. I have tried to be as simple and clear as I either can be or can be induced to be. It is a very direct book, I think. It addresses the reader whether he or she be young or old, whatever their background quite intimately.
The purpose of the book, and I hope the achievement of the book, is to get in very close to a reader and try to speak directly to what it is that they either might want out of the book or might be persuaded to see: that truly, though they may not have been aware of it, this is what they want and only really first-rate imaginative literature can bring it to them. For example, they want Chekhov's short stories, because they are not only so poignant but have the uncanny faculty, rather like Shakespeare in that regard, to persuade the reader or the auditor that certain truths about himself or herself, which are totally authentic, totally real, are being demonstrated to the reader for the very first time. It's not as though Shakespeare or Chekhov has created those truths. It's just that without the assistance of Shakespeare and Chekhov, we might never be able to see what is really there.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I bought this book thinking that it would be a guide to better appreciate literature. I was wrong. I'm about to finish up a second graduate degree but I found it almost impossible to read this book. The tone was pompous and while it does discuss the pleasures of reading, the amount of digressions in this book is distracting. I do not recommend this book.
I had to read this book for AP english 3 (of high school). I'm in a book club and everything...so i love books. But this book was toture. The guy basically gives you a little review of the story in a paragrah and then compares the writer to shakespere or whoever. He's doing this on and on through the book. It's annoying and it seems like he's pressuring the information on the reader. I didnt like that at all. So for my class, I'm just going to read the "summary" parts and skip everything else. I'm dreading it. He goes back and forth on his opioions and keeps talking about how this or that writer is like shakespere. Don't read it if you don't have to.
Bloom's book on the guiding principles of how to read and why is an effort to elucidate the great meaning and subsequent pleasure derived from literature for the solitary reader. While one realizes that any attempt to fully explain the importance of reading in some 300 pages can only achieve so much (not that 1000 more could make up the difference), I found the preface and introduction to the book particularly useful. Most important advice offered: Do not read to believe or disbelieve, but rather to consider, and make later judgements based on those considerations. Bloom's approach is rather academic, but I believe he does so in order to keep his commentary close to his own life experience- he is a professor at Yale. I suggest borrowing this one from the library before you run out to buy it- read some of the original works he comments on, then read his commentary- in the context of each section's intro and summary observations. Bloom is very earnest in his reading, and though worth your time TO CONSIDER, it not a book for the unambitious reader.