How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

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Some find dismissing Harold Bloom easy due to his politics. He’s one of the few college professors who still believes in a literary canon: a primarily white, male literary canon; and who believes that books can teach us about life and living. These beliefs defy the currently held philosophy of many English departments. When I mentioned a few years ago on Facebook that I was reading Bloom, one of my former instructors admitted that he couldn’t get through Bloom’s books because he found them so politically offensive. As can be expected, Bloom’s How to Read and Why is no different.

When one reads How to Read and Why, one is reading a love letter to literature similar to Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick, or Christopher R. Beha’s The Whole Five Feet. It is clear that the texts that Bloom has chosen those he is most passionate about, and the glee with which he shares them with the reader is that of a child showing off their favorite Hot Wheels.

For, to Bloom, the texts that he recommends in this book are the best of the best. Thoreau says, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all,” and these are the texts on Bloom’s “first read” list. He suggests that everyone (within western culture, I think it’s fair to say) read them, and he offers a summation and an argument in favor of each one.

He also insists on beautiful writing, which is also currently unpopular. I remember working in a bookstore where one of my managers, who was a huge science fiction fan, said he didn’t care about the quality of writing, only the ideas presented. Nothing could be more antithetical to Harold Bloom, who insists that the caliber of writing meet as high a standard as the story itself before it can be recommended.

The formula for reading that Bloom recommends is a combination of Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson: “Find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time’s tyranny” (22).

In approaching literature he recommends that you free your mind of cant (23), which is to say personal bias: let each text speak for itself. I always think of this approach as Matthew Arnold’s Disinterestedness. Let the text speak to you--don’t let your bias speak to the text. As he says, “To read in the service of any ideology is not to read at all.”

Why read? Self-improvement. But don’t try to improve your neighborhood, cautions Bloom. Improving the self is enough. Quoting Shakespeare to a loved one at just the right moment might lead to more passion. Quoting Shakespeare to your neighbor during an argument might also lead to more passion - as in a fist in your mouth. Stick to using literature for the improvement and strengthening of the self.

We should also read, he tells us, because we can only know a few people intimately. Good literature allows us to know more. Important characters for us to know are found in both archaic and contemporary texts: Bloom recommends classics like Moby Dick, Hamlet, Leaves of Grass, and Emma, and newer texts such as The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

One might be tempted to skip past his older recommendations for more modern ones, but it’s important to remember that reading great thinkers leads to great thought. One need only read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and compare it to The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. Carr freely acknowledges that he was inspired by Postman’s text (and I also recommend Postman’s Technopoly), but when you compare the two side by side, you see a key difference in the quality of thought. Postman’s analysis is far richer, and I believe that comes from his reading of great texts: he quotes from Plato and other sources. Carr, not so much. This comparison shows why Bloom encourages reading the best texts.

Just as Bloom reads the these books critically, we should read Bloom critically. Bloom observes that Tolstoy valued Uncle Tom's Cabin over King Lear; James Baldwin, in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” convincingly explains why Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t a great novel. Though I don’t believe that Bloom hoists Uncle Tom’s Cabin over Lear, I wonder about his inclusion of Tolstoy’s preference, and I worry for Tolstoy.

But this is a minor issue. How to Read and Why is an exciting text that makes no apologies for what it is: a love letter to literature intended to excite others to learn to love literature as well.