How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom
My Rating: ★★★★★
This book has come by some harsh criticism, especially by eminent reviewers like Terry Eagleton and fellow goodreaders. In spite of the bad reviews by goodreaders I usually take at their word, I decided to give the book a chance. With Bloom’s combination of ideas such as Shakespeare being the progenitor of all modern fiction and poetry, and of the bard also being the inventor of ‘Human” in literature and his audacious theory on all literary works being nothing more than a sort of plagiarism or a creative misreading of earlier efforts, I was sure that at the very least I would get some interesting things to read about the thirty odd literary masterpieces (and forty odd authors) that he endeavors to discuss in the book.
One of the major criticism leveled at the book by most of the reviewers I found on goodreads was about how most of his discussions on various books, especially of short stories and poems, were just recapitulations of the plots and the verses and then some banal commentary on how good they were or how moving they were. This is well captured by Terry Eagleton when he says that Bloom has no fallen into the “quote-and-dote” school of criticism. In one of his most stinging passages he remarks:
“Why does Bloom need to augment the self? ‘We read,’ he suggests, ‘not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.’ It sounds as though Harold is a bit short of mates and reads to make up for it. Perhaps he alienates them by his repeated chanting of excessively long poems.”
Turns out that the fundamental problem with the book is that it is not an essay on how to read or on why to read but it is a book about books, a book by a passionate reader about the books he loves the most – the best sort there is. It does not teach you how to read books but it is an exercise on how to talk about books you have read, how to love them, how to re-read them and how to reminisce about those old companions in the most intelligent and enamored fashion. That is what bloom demonstrates.
This book is an exercise in love – a reader talking about what he loves to read and why, converted forcefully into a book on how and why another should read – and this I feel was the reason the book got all its bad reviews. It built up the wrong expectations. Readers came to it hoping for good advice on how to read meaningfully but was treated to a long monologue on how bloom reads and why he loves it. With a better title and an explanatory subtitle, the same readers might have loved the same book that they criticized so much. Luckily for me, I did not go into it hoping for someone to teach me how to read or wondering why I should read, I am getting by well enough on those fronts; I went in hoping to discuss some of these great books and I got exactly that – a nice conversation with someone who loves books, the very best of pleasures that a reading life offers.
Ultimately, my biggest complaint is about how short the book is, how perfunctory it is – glossing over Blake and Chekov and others in the space of a few pages and treating only the smallest possible sample of their works (one). I have a strong feeling that the title of the book was fixed around midway through its writing, because from then on, probably following his editor’s orders, Bloom takes to ending each chapter with the questions of the book title, the “how” an the “why” of reading, and mostly the answers he provides are platitudes that only serve to irritate the serious reader who wants only to talk on about his favorite books and not wait for the author to come back to the discussion after giving a small meaningless speech to the public like an advertisement that intrudes on it. It feels like a sell-out and cheapens the experience.
I did not mind the many shortcomings of the book, it reminded me of old friends and gave me a few good insights from the texts quoted and many more from my own memories of reading and most valuably, it made me think of why I read them, what I experienced then and how I was changed by each of the readings. That was the great pleasure Bloom gave to me while I put up with his “teenage groupie” sticky sentimentality about Shakespeare and repeated admonitions to read poems aloud or to read to ‘expand one’s consciousness’. The “how” to read part of the book is stifling and pedantic and the “why” part of the title does not get much attention but Stuart Jeffries captures it brilliantly when he says: “Ultimately the intellectual and the sensual are married in Bloom’s notion of reading as a difficult pleasure. He calls this “the reader’s Sublime”. It is the closest to secular transcendence that we may achieve in this life – it helps us get beyond despair, loss and death. The cultivation of that difficult pleasure, finally, is why we should read.”
You don’t have to agree with Bloom’s views to enjoy the book because the book is just a shared exercise in enjoying other books – you just need to have a love for the same books that Bloom discusses and the patience to put up with some commercial asides and the rest will take care of itself.
If you have read and enjoyed most of the books discussed, pick up the book and read it to reminisce with a fellow reader and you are bound to enjoy most parts of it. Bloom’s love of great literature being so contagious, it might even send you anew to Proust, to Ibsen, to Borges, to Italo Calvino, to Pynchon, to Emily Dickenson and most importantly to Shakespeare. But, if you have read very few of the works discussed and pick up the book to find a reason why you should read them, you will probably hate this book and also stay away from the wonderful classics discussed, and there could be no greater tragedy. With that caveat, take my five-star rating and my complete recommendation for reading this book.
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