Bloom’s Notes: Homer’s Iliad, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom
Before reading Homer’s Iliad (again, I read it at least once before in the time before I wrote book reviews for everything I read), I thought it would be worthwhile to read some notes on the book by Harold Bloom. Bloom, of course , is a noted literary critic whose writings have sought to preserve the classics and “great books” traditions of reading in recent decades. As someone who is in general warmly sympathetic to this tradition and who appreciates reading and commenting on great books, I figured this book would be a good one to familiarize me with Bloom’s educational writings and encourage me to read the epic poem again in translation. And as is the case with Bloom’s writing, the criticism can be a bit hyperbolic, but the book does a good job at presenting the reader with various critical opinions about Homer’s writing and the story and characterization of the Iliad, and those who want such things will appreciate what this book has to say. Short and full of interesting material, this is an easy book to appreciate and likely will by many readers.
In less than 100 pages, these Bloom’s notes don’t contain any filler. The editor begins with a user’s guide to help the reader become familiar with how the series works and how the book is to be read. After this there is an introduction to the work and its cultural importance. Then there is a brief biography of Homer, which is admittedly speculative since not much is known about him. After this a considerable amount of space is devoted to a thematic and structural analysis of the Iliad, which gives a sense of what Homer was seeking to accomplish in the poem. There is a list of characters, most of them familiar to readers of other Greek classics. Most of the book consists of the thoughts of various critics from the 19th and 20th centuries that has been assembled by the author. Then there is a look at various versions and English translations of Homer, who is only known for this work, the Odyssey, and perhaps a few other poems that are attributed to him. The book then concludes with works about Homer and the Iliad suggested for further reading as well as an index of themes and ideas contained in the Iliad.
Ultimately, it is the critical essays that make this book as enjoyable to read as it is. While this book is clearly no substitute for reading the Iliad, it is very worthwhile in helping the reader understand what others have written about it and thought about it. As the author subtly points out, there is a range of critical opinion about the work, and a great many people have pointed out the distinctions between this work and other great works of the Western tradition. A great many people appear to have a desire to live in the heroic and aristocratic age that Homer writes about, while many of us are less than fond of this sort of attitude. One of the aspects of great books like the Iliad that deserves to be recognized is that how we think of the book helps to reveal who we are, and confronting great literature is a way for us to improve the greatness of our thinking and our behaving, even when we dislike the works that we are encountering. There is a worth in knowing and understanding what it is that great books say, and also in knowing what others have found in encountering these works as well.
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