How To Read And Why, by Harold Bloom
Many people have read the writings of Harold Bloom, and for decades he has demonstrated himself to be a major supporter of the Great Books and someone who encourages others to read well. In this book, which ostensibly is about the great books and how we approach them, we find out more about Harold Bloom than we find out about the great books themselves, and what we find out is not necessarily very pleasant. One of the awkward realities about being a book reviewer is that when we review a book we expose ourselves and our own presuppositions and perspectives and biases and personality in the course of writing about books. The more we review books, and the more deeply we look at them, the more we reveal about ourselves in our attempts to uncover the books that we are writing about . Such is the case here, as the author demonstrates himself to be somewhat obsessed with the homoeroticism and rancid nature of much of the great books he happens to like, and a somewhat foppish and effete aesthete. The general approach of the author appears to be that he has spent a lifetime reading good and bad books so you should respect him as an authority on books and not read for oneself to acquire one’s own critical judgment. The fact that the author does not appear to respect authorities higher than his own does not bode well for his own attempts at being an authority on good writing himself, or good morals and good living for that matter.
The content of this book consists of mostly short but somewhat meandering reflections of the author on many of his favorite books, books that he thinks everyone should devote themselves to reading in particular ways . The nearly 300 pages of this book are divided into five large chapters. The first looks at short stories from Turgenev to Chekhov to Maupassant to Hemingway to Flannery O’Connor to Nabokov to Borges to Landolfi to Calvino. The second chapter opines on poems from Housman, Blake, Landor, Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, Dickenson, Bronte, Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. The author spends the third chapter discussing novels from the great European tradition including Don Quixote, The Charterhouse of Parma, Emma, Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, Portrait of a Lady, In Search Of Lost Time, and The Magic Mountain. The fourth chapter looks briefly at three notable plays: Hamlet, Hedda Gabler from Ibsen, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest. The last chapter looks at great American novels in the Moby Dick tradition, including novels from Faulkner, Nathanael West, Thomas Pyncheon, Cormac McCarthy, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison. Each of the chapters and the book overall has summary observations and a discussion on completing the work where the author tries to impress the reader on his erudition as a book critic.
In reading this book, one becomes convinced that the author’s hostility to religious practice, and often to religious writers (like C.S. Lewis) comes from the fact that the author wishes to be his own authority and does not wish to respect the authority of others. Yet in attacking religious morality, his attempts to replace it with a certain artistic freedom and an aristocracy of fellow snobby literati are destined to fail because his love of cynical and immoral writings and his attack on restraint and religious authority undercut any attempts to claim authority for himself. At best, he ends up coming off like Milton’s Satan, attempting to rule over a little sandbox and storming around in sound and fury, glorying in his rancidity and elegant wit and freedom from the restraints that God places on humanity, the freedom to be decadent and great in his own estimation. Nevertheless, this book is of value not least because the author at least wishes to honor the greatness of great works and because there is a value in choosing good books to read, books that will challenge us and expand our ways of thinking rather than reading only that which we can consider ourselves superior to, as is the case with much of the reading that people do. Even though this author is an unappealing snob, he does have a point in recommending good books, even if his taste is not infallible and his personality often shows itself as unlikeable.
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