Harold Bloom, at his finest, celebrates reading's divinity

On Books

June 04, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Harold Bloom is a great critic -- I would argue the greatest living critic writing in English -- as well as a great teacher. He holds a chaired professorship at Yale and another at New York University, and formerly did at Harvard. He is a MacArthur Prize fellow, recipient of too many awards and honors to inventory. He has published more than 20 books, including the bestselling "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," "The Western Canon" and the seminal "The Anxiety of Influence."

He now comes forth with "How to Read a Book and Why" (Scribner, 283 pages, $25). It is superb.

So, how? The answer is the course and content of this volume. But essentially: Pay attention, read intensely and reread. And, above all, don't be distracted by theory, politics or ideology.

The title's second query is richer. Bloom's writes: "The ultimate answer to the question 'Why read?' is that only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self. Until you become yourself, what benefit can you be to others?"

And, at another point, Bloom insists, "We ought to read for many purposes ... but the cultivation of an individual consciousness is certainly a prime purpose, and a major benefit, of deep reading. Zest and insight: these are the attributes of the solitary reader's consciousness that are most enhanced by reading."

Zest and insight! Is there a finer tag for a well-lived life, a lovelier epitaph?

At the outset, Bloom establishes five principles of reading. The first is "clear your mind of cant ... the peculiar vocabulary of a sect or coven. Since the universities have empowered such covens as 'gender and sexuality' and 'multiculturalism,' " he cautions, academics are often the enemies of the first principle.

The second principle is that there are no "ethics of reading" -- that it should not have a political or social-reformist agenda. The third: "A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light" -- essentially that personal culture is in itself a contribution.

The fourth: "One must be an inventor to read well" -- we read, though frequently without recognizing it, in quest of a mind that is richer than our own, of understanding that had been beyond our reach. The fifth principle is "recovery of the ironic" -- rising from Bloom's assertion that "ideology ... is peculiarly destructive of the capacity to apprehend and appreciate irony."

For all its amazingly provident content, the book is short, less than 300 smallish pages of reasonably large type. It is divided into five sections after the Prologue I have quoted here. The first section is short stories (Turgenev through Hemingway to Italo Calvino); the second, poems (Shakespeare through Blake to Emily Dickinson); the third, novels, Part I ("Don Quixote," "Crime and Punishment," to Proust and Mann); the fourth, plays (Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wilde) and the fifth, novels, Part II (Melville, Nathaniel West, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison). Shakespeare is the master -- the rock upon which literature rests. The authors I cite parenthetically are only about a fifth of the total.

The greatest of many delights I found in reading "How to Read and Why" is how pleasant, unstraining was the experience. Bloom uses clear, simple English to make clear, if not simple, some of the most complex of issues of literature. There is not a word of lit-babble -- no deconstruction here. It is totally free of pollution by the French obscurantist cultists -- Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault -- or their American tenured myrmidons.

The ever-astonishing depth of Bloom's capacities of recall and analysis stand on modest self-recognition. He asks: "Why did Checkov prefer this short story ["The Student"] to scores of what seem to many of his admirers far more consequential and vital tales?" And he answers: "I have no clear answer, but regard the question as worthy of pondering." And thus he ponders, deliciously.

And consider this: "Poetry, at the best, does us a kind of violence that prose fiction rarely attempts or accomplishes. The Romantics understood this as the proper work of poetry: to startle us out of our sleep of death into a more capacious sense of life."

I don't know a good many of the works Bloom cites. Others I do not remember sufficiently to put him to test. But about those that I thought I knew well, I learned much from Bloom, my consciousness growing.

Bloom finishes with a very brief epilogue, "Completing the Work," that delves into the origins of Judaism and Christianity. He pursues the outlines of the foundation of Western civilization. He draws those essentials toward a simple, personal puzzle: Does the moral human's work never cease? Or is there a time to desist, to rest?

The answer is left to the reader, but with this admonition:

"Though the moral decision cannot be made merely by reading well, the questions of how to read and why are more than ever essential to help us decide whose work to perform."

This is a wonderfully entertaining book, and one of deep -- though never pedantic -- scholarship. Above all, it is a work of profound moral purpose.

Despite all that -- nay, because of it -- there is joy in Bloom, in his heart and in his book: "If there is an afterlife, and people go on reading in it (surely more appropriate than their watching celestial television), I would want to hear Shakespeare reading aloud from Through the Looking-Glass."

Closing the last page of this extraordinarily wise, nourishing and beautiful volume, I found myself certain of my own foremost celestial wish: That I be allowed to watch Harold Bloom witnessing Willie the Shake declaiming "Jabberwocky."

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! -- I chortle in my joy. There must be a heaven. There just has to be.

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