Those of you who have been visiting here for a while know that I have a love-hate relationship with Harold Bloom. He is an amazingly intelligent person and a really good writer. He is also pompous, says snarky things about feminists, and believes that his opinion is the one and only right opinion. In How to Read and Why he did not disappoint me.
If you are thinking that by reading this book you will gain a valuable understanding on a variety of ways to approach a text, how to winkle out the things that go on below the surface of the main plot, and then how to synthesize it all together into a meaningful whole, you will be disappointed. The “how to read” part of the book is basically Bloom telling the reader his interpretation of the material, which, of course, is the correct interpretation. The only how to read advice he actually gives that is useful comes late in the book in the summary of part two of the novel. He says:
One potentially valuable lesson in how to read a great novel is to ask the question, do the principal characters change and, if they do, what causes them to change?
He follows that up in the same summary suggesting that great works should not be approached with “condescension or fear.” If we approach a book in this way, we risk destroying both our understanding of it and our pleasure in it. Instead, we need to relax and be receptive, give the author a chance to hold our attention. If the whole book was like this, it would have been fantastic.
For Bloom, every work of literature he discusses whether it is poetry, plays or novels, gets compared to Shakespeare. There was literature before Shakespeare but it was only leading up to Shakespeare and everything after is nearly all derivative. Iago from Othello is a favorite character Bloom uses for comparison. But Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Cleopatra, and various characters from Twelfth Night also crop up frequently. This got annoying fast.
In Bloom’s discussions of the texts he has chosen he assumes you have read it. He gives away endings freely. And he assumes you have also read everything Shakespeare ever wrote. He also likes to pepper the book with his own recollections like the first time he read Moby Dick when he was nine. Who reads Moby Dick when they are nine?
And then there are the doom-and-gloom moanings about the demise of the novel. And if you don’t believe him, he brings in the novelists themselves for evidence:
Major novelists such as Philip Roth tell me that the readership is not renewing itself, and evidently an art not fully developed until the eighteenth century may expire after the second millennium that rushes upon us. Perhaps cyberpunk fiction, the latest form of romance, is a presage of a cyclic revenge upon its ungrateful child, the novel.
You see, Bloom is partial to realist fiction.
As for why to read, he gives many reasons none of which are because it’s fun. We should read to strengthen the self, to attain a sense of freedom, to be startled out of our “sleep-of-death into a more capacious sense of life,” to attain spiritual insight, and to cultivate our consciousness among other always improving reasons. I suppose Bloom assumes that if we read for all the right reasons pleasure will follow. It is therefore very important to read the right books. Personally, I think attitudes like Bloom’s do a disservice to literature; it turns people off and they will never want to even try reading Great Expectations or any other “great” piece of literature. I think it is always best to read for pleasure first and then the rest will follow.
While How to Read and Why had some bright spots for me, like Bloom’s discussion of The Importance of Being Earnest, the book is clearly intended for people who already read and know why they read. Which begs the question, if that is the audience, why do we need to read this book?