How to Read and Why — Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why is mostly an exercise close reading that tries to show how to learn by doing. The particular works Bloom chooses, ranging from Shakespeare to Borges to Proust, seem less important than the mere act of criticism; unlike most criticism, however, this one makes explicit the moral and other lessons it wants you to take. In some ways, How to Read and Why is a cheerleader for the personal critic inside all of us, like a book about eating that’s really for amateur restaurant reviewers for Yelp.com. How to Read and Why could also be a broader version of Shakepeare: The Invention of the Human, with short essays on a variety of authors instead of one.

Bloom passes judgment—in a very “judicious” sense of the word—on authors and works, as when he says that “Absorbing as Crime and Punishment is, it cannot be absolved of tendentiousness, which is Dostoevsky’s invariable flaw.” That Bloom didn’t say “crime” in lieu of “flaw,” shows his seriousness as a writer, and maybe also his lack of fun in seizing a terrible but obvious pun. Elsewhere, some of Bloom’s analysis manages the difficult trifecta of being subtle, meaningful, and non-obvious, as when he writes that “Turgenev, like Henry James, learned something subtler from Shakespeare: the mystery of the seemingly commonplace, the rendering of a reality that is perpetually augmenting.” The word “augmenting” is perhaps off-key, but we understand what Bloom meant. Although I don’t know whether she learned it from Shakespeare, Virgina Woolf might have accomplished the same thing.

These insights or descriptions or banal commentary, depending on perspective, are sprinkled throughout the book. In each section—”chapter” is too large a word for them—Bloom goes through essentially the same formula, relating to short stories, poems, novels, plays, and then novels again: he gives a close reading of the work, states what he thinks is unusual about its style or content, then gives a lesson or lessons. Some “lessons” are negative, in that they show what not to aspire to, while others are positive; others toe the nebulous middle, like this passage about Chekhov’s “The Student:”

Nothing in ‘The Student,’ except what happens in the protagonist’s mind, is anything but dreadfully dismal. It is the irrational rise of impersonal joy and personal hope out of cold and misery, and the tears of betrayal, that appears to have moved Chekhov himself.

In weaker hands, such a comment might be merely sentimental and, worse, fatuous. But here it feels supported—organic—although to show how would require pages and pages of quote. It show the acknowledgment of cold and misery and the reality of those things through a single word: “irrational.” With it, Bloom nods at reality and then transcends it, as “The Student” does.

Nonetheless, not everything in How to Read and Why is flawless. Bloom writes that “[…] short stories, whether of the Chekhovian or Borgesian kind, constitute an essential ” Essential form? What the hell does that mean? What’s a non-essential form? Regardless of their essentiality or lack thereof, I still don’t care much for them because, as I’ve often explained to friends amused at this reasoning, by the time I’m into one, it ends. It takes novels to really hold me and to make me want to invest in them. He makes, however, as strong an intellectual and academic case for short stories as one is likely to find, although Francine Prose, James Wood, and others argue in their favor. Regardless of their defenses, I still don’t like them.

Bloom also doesn’t and perhaps can’t explain the pleasures of reading except in terms of themselves, and perhaps that’s for the best: such sensations are difficult if not impossible to convey, but to his credit they are implied. It’s pleasure mingled with duty to Bloom, one becoming the other in the mature mind; as he writes, “I want to contrast Shakespeare’s abandonment of the work [toward ceaselessly reinventing consciousness] with Tarphon’s [a Rabbi of the same generation as the more famous Akiva] insistence that we are not free to abandon it.” The two are different perhaps for religious reasons; of Shakespeare’s inclinations we know little, but it seems that he probably had no God looking over his shoulder, while Tarphon had the possibility of disappointing God with him at every moment. The contrast between the two men is hardly surprising; it’s been claimed that the novel arose to take the place of God, meaning that a specialized form of imaginative narrative art overtook the belief in literal manifestations of a deity beyond time and space, and there is even a book with the very deliberate and appropriate title The Secular Scriptures, which studies Romance.

I’ve focused primarily on the short story section of How to Read and Why, and it’s emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of the book as a whole. The major problem with Bloom’s approach is that sophisticated readers already do this, and they might even read critics who help them to do it better. People who don’t or seldom read probably won’t be interested. That leaves naive readers who would like to learn more, but I can’t imagine that a vast number of them are waiting for Harold Bloom’s instruction in the art of reading. It’s possible some exist, to be sure, but it seems more likely that someone interested in becoming a sophisticated reader will have already done so, and someone uninterested is unlikely to read a book to learn more about reading. How many people are there in the marginal space devoted to seekers who haven’t found much yet? Some, perhaps—the cover proclaims that How to Read and Why was a New York Times bestseller, for whatever that’s worth. Still, I could see How to Read and Why being an excellent gift book, or an excellent reference to attackers who say “why bother reading?”

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