Harold Bloom’s How To Read And Why

How To Read And WhyI was 14 years old when my love of Shakespeare began in earnest. It started with the opening scene of Julius Caesar, in which two tribunes, loyal to Pompey, berate a group of commoners for neglecting their work to celebrate Caesar’s latest victory. One commoner, too clever for his social betters, retaliates with a series of bawdy puns. The comic energies of the scene – so typically Shakespearean, so thoroughly amusing, even today – mask a prescient commentary on the fickleness of crowds and set the stage for the events that will follow. Something in the scene – the happy truants, the disrespect for authority, the lascivious banter? – captivated me, and even my teenage ears were not deaf to Shakespeare’s music. Every subsequent play became a study in appreciation. The first critic I encountered who reflected my enthusiasm, who validated it, was Harold Bloom.

How To Read And Why is Bloom-lite, both in page count and in ambition, but its narrow scope is part of what makes it so enjoyable. After a brief meditation on the importance of reading, he launches into a discussion of some fifty writers, categorized by genre, and what makes them both challenging and vital. In this respect, the book is similar to Bloom’s much larger Genius: A Mosaic Of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, but where that book is broad and often esoteric in its descriptions of its subjects, How To Read And Why is remarkably focused. But I’d like to begin with his prefatory pages, organized around a question too rarely asked: why do we read? “Reading,” for Bloom, does not mean the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, and it certainly doesn’t mean Stephen King or 50 Shades Of Grey. Reading, for Bloom, means Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman & Emily Dickinson, and in an age when neither the culture at large nor even the universities proclaim their importance, the question of why becomes vitally important. Bloom has another way of framing the question I find useful: “Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?” Information is troop movements in the Middle East, stock prices and crime rates; it’s even who among your friends is getting married, or divorced, or going back to school. Wisdom is less easily quantified, and therefore not something that can be transmitted via new technology or social media. Wisdom is knowledge of self, knowledge of others, an understanding of the human condition – as passé as that idea has become – and literature gives us not only the means to ascertain these truths but to bear them.

Next is the matter of how to read. Bloom quotes approvingly from Francis Bacon (“Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider”) and his idol, Dr. Johnson (“Clear your mind of cant!”), before making his case for an approach to literature free from politics and preconceptions, free from the burden of having to redeem society by the instruction of values. “There are no ethics of reading,” Bloom insists; you read for yourself and yourself alone. With this commandment registered, Bloom begins our tour of five centuries of Western literature, offering his insights on everyone from Browning, Tennyson and Coleridge to Faulkner and Toni Morrison, illuminating difficult writers that we might share in his appreciation. In this most fundamental role of the critic, Harold Bloom has no living equals.