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How to Read and Why
How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom; 283 pp. New York: Scribner, 2000, $25.00.
How to Read and Why is hardly Bloom's first attempt to engage a less professional audience. That attempt characterizes most of Bloom's criticism over the last fifteen or so years, beginning with the massive Chelsea House publishing venture, in which he composed introductions to collections of critical essays on every literary author, more or less. Since Chelsea House, Bloom has produced three best-sellers, The Book of J, his commentary on the oldest strain of the Pentateuch, The Western Canon, and the magisterial Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. How to Read and Why in many ways resembles The Western Canon in miniature, but the reduction in size corresponds to a shift in stance and genre. The Western Canon presented itself as a work of mourning, an elegy for the great and increasingly disregarded masterpieces of the Western literary tradition, but the work itself was triumphal. Bloom celebrated a pantheon of twenty-six literary heroes while intermittently deriding the academic "resentniks" who cannot soar where the mighty dead are now sitting. By contrast, How to Read and Why really is elegiac, or feels so to me. But it is not so much an elegy for the canon as for the act of reading itself.
A slim volume compared to Bloom's recent performances, it organizes its discussion by genres: short stories, poems, novels, and plays (a fifth section of [End Page 502] the book returns to the novel in America, from Melville to Toni Morrison). All together, I count forty-six authors under consideration, but the focus is really on works. As its title suggests, the book is overtly pedagogical. Repeatedly, Bloom asks why we should read a certain work, or any difficult work of literature. Most frequently, he answers, to alleviate loneliness and strengthen the self in solitude. But the stress is on solitude rather than strength, however related those terms necessarily are for Bloom. The strong poet's quest against belatedness, his dual to the death with his precursor--the great theme of Bloom's middle phase--gives place, in How to Read and Why, to the reader's receptivity, the reader's openness to difficult pleasures, the reader's need for the companionable forms of imaginative writing. Indeed, in his "Summary Observations" on the novel, Bloom muses: "Perhaps we all need to relax our will-to-power when we open a book" (p. 197).
Bloom has been turning his back on academic theory for a long time, but the turn itself frequently felt like a move in the conversation. At times in How to Read and Why Bloom seems to end the conversation altogether and begin another kind of conversation with another kind of listener. In his discussion of The Magic Mountain, he describes Mann's likeable protagonist, Hans Castorp, as "that ideal student the universities used to proclaim (before their current self-degradation) yet never found" (p. 191); perhaps Bloom set out to write a literary companion for Hans in How to Read and Why. Consider the following remark, which foreshortens a discussion of Shelley's last poem, The Triumph of Life: "I hope that the reader will go on to the remainder of this great torso of a poem without me, remembering always to slow down and read very slowly, and preferably out loud, whether to oneself or to others. The intensity and vividness of Shelley's final utterance will reward the reader's labor, both by its bitter eloquence and by insight into the human condition" (p. 134). These sentences in particular convey something of the genre of How to Read and Why, which is curiously archaic. In search of a rough equivalent, I took down from my shelf John Ruskin's The Elements of Drawing, and opened to the following passage: "The real difficulties are to get the refinement of the forms and the evenness of the gradations. . . . Get it more tender and...