Book Review: How To Read A Book And Why (2)

How To Read A Book And Why, by Harold Bloom

As entertaining as the author is to read, there are some deep problems with this book.  Any author who is content to make casual libels of conservatives and religious folk and has an ax to grind against the literary criticism of C.S. Lewis because of hostility for his religious beliefs is not someone who is going to appeal to me on the highest level.  So as much as I appreciate the author’s obvious love of books, there are some fundamental things he gets wrong because his goal is autonomy because he is hostile to submitting to God’s authority and striving to follow His ways.  Despite our shared love of reading, this book’s approach can only fully appeal to a reader who shares the author’s goal of seeking godlike status as a critic and a hostility to any higher authority, be it political or moral or aesthetic.  The author’s lack of a genuine moral sense and his own overinflated view of his significance as an educated and literate and cultured man definitely detract from my enjoyment of this book, even if he and I appreciate many of the same kinds of books, which counts for something at least.

This book of almost three hundred pages is divided into five relatively large sections based on genre and then smaller sections based on books the author wishes to commend to the reader’s appreciation that he has not already spoken of in previous volumes.  So the author begins with short stories and examines some noted authors like Turgenev, Chekhov, de Maupassant, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Nabokov, Borges, Landolfi, and Calvino, and I was pleased to have read and enjoyed many of these stories in my own reading.  After this the author looks at poets, including Housman, Blake, Landor, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Whitman, Dickinson, Emily Brontë, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly, Keats, and some anonymous balladeers.  Again, these poems are easy to appreciate.  Then we come to the first part of novels, which examines works by Cervantes, Stendhal, Austen, Dickens, Dostoevsky, James, Proust, and Mann.  The author makes some brief comments on plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Wilde before finishing with a look at American novels by Melville, Faulkner, West, Pynchon, McCarthy, Ellison, and Toni Morrison.  He clearly is focusing his attention on Western literature though he likely considers himself to be a remarkably open person about various other cultural groups despite this somewhat narrow selection.

Reading this book is akin to sitting with someone who talks too much and who drones on about his thoughts about all the interesting books he has read, full of critical comments against those who have understood various works differently than himself.  He would like to think of himself as a tolerant person but shows some pointed intolerance at anyone with a moral worldview and shows himself to be a bit narrow in the sort of art that draws his attention.  Is this book enjoyable?  It is at times; the author has certainly read well and makes his bardophile tendencies quite open.  If he is a bit of a pedant and a snob when it comes to culture, there are worse things that one could be.  In general, this book has modest pleasures and advocates generally worthwhile reading, with occasional bits of insight and understanding about the difficulty of allusive reading for those who have not read widely enough to understand the great conversation that literature is involved in, but in reading this book (and others by the author) I am often filled with regret that the author did not focus on the most important aspects of life instead of vainly trying to think of himself as the ultimate authority of books and their importance and meaning.  It is better to be a servant of God than to be the alleged master of whatever one’s own private realm is.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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