Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, May 9, 2021

"How to Read and Why" by Harold Bloom

I first started reading this book years ago and (no idea why) abandoned it relatively quickly. But, as usual, I've always intended to come back to it.

My first impression, then and now: this book would more accurately be titled, "What to Read and Why." There are general nuggets about reading throughout the book, but the main structure comprises reviews of specific selected works that are either short stories, poems, novels, or plays. However, I chose to read this book because I expected to learn what its title states, so that's what I'll focus on in this post.

Regarding the general nuggets about reading, first there are five principles to restore the way we read:

  • Clear your mind of cant (not can't, but "speech overflowing with pious platitudes, the peculiar vocabulary of a sect or coven")
  • Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read (instead, reading is meant for self-improvement, at least until "primal ignorance has been purged")
  • A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light ("if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others") 
  • One must be an inventor to read well (I take this to mean that you must be willing and able to read between the lines, and to have confidence in your interpretation)
  • Recovery of the ironic ("the loss of irony is the death of reading")
Bloom says one of the reasons why we should read is that "it makes us wish we could be more ourselves." I take this to mean it allows us to learn more about ourselves, which is supported by later statements in the book: "We should read to strengthen the self . . . only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self."

Bloom says the "how" of reading is to read "only the best of what has been written." (Unfortunately, if he addressed the question of how we determine which works achieve that category, I didn't make a note of it and I've forgotten. Although obviously Bloom considers all those works covered in his book to be worthy.) In reading we should also "be vigilant, apprehend and recognize the possibility of the good, help it to endure, give it space in your life . . . read with wise passivity," which is to say, pay attention to what you're reading, and think about it. How to think about it? "Ask, do the principal characters change, and if they do, what causes them to change?" Bloom also encourages re-reading: "Perhaps to some degree you become what you behold the second time around." 

So, how should How to Read and Why be read? I read this book through from beginning to end, not diverting to the referenced works in between. But regarding the works I'm unfamiliar with--am I really going to remember what Bloom said about them once I get around to reading them? Should I go back and review the applicable portion of Bloom's book after I read each work? Would it have been best to wait and read Bloom's book after I became familiar with all the works it refers to? Maybe it should be read piecemeal: Review the table of contents, make a list of works to read, and alternate between reading works and reading Bloom's chapters. It does seem that for How to Read and Why to be of greater value, the specific works should be fresh on your mind as you read each applicable section of Bloom's book.

Why should this book be read? I think that the general consensus would be that it enriches the reading experience . . . though it could also possibly come with some unintended negative consequences. For instance, being told I should read "only the best of what has been written" momentarily caused me to more intensely regret the time I've already wasted on unworthy books. And, as Bloom is obviously incredibly well-read--probably to the extent that it would be impossible to catch up--I feel envious of  Bloom, in awe of his superior knowledge of the written word. But even these bleak thoughts can be turned around: why not start now and aim to read only the best? Why not try to catch up, even if it will be impossible? After all, as with many things, it's the journey that matters more than the destination.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I forgot to say (but it doesn't really fit in anyway): Bloom really likes Shakespeare (maybe too much??) and doesn't like Poe at all (and I'm not sure why).