Harold Bloom on childhood: nourishing literate culture

On Books

November 04, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

I have always loved anthologies. As a kid, I had a dozen or more, which I went back to again and again. Mostly prose, but plenty of poetry -- Lewis Carroll, most certainly, Keats, a good deal of Kipling -- hardly respectable these days (though, well, perhaps terrorism will yield a revival). I have some of them still, though sadly not all.

I still pull them down, as I do books I have read long since. I read a few pages, mostly familiar ones. I cannot imagine a life without that companionship, books' magical power to ignite and sustain the heart and mind.

In this season, critics and editors are besieged by holiday volumes contrived to take advantage of gift-buyers' lack of imagination, books with destinies as doorstops.

So it was with high hope and particular delight that, the other day, I greeted Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, selected by Harold Bloom (Scribner, 573 pages, $27.50).

Harold Bloom is, I have argued before, the finest critical mind writing in English. He is a man of fierce virtues and fervent purpose. If he has failings, surely one is not to temporize. In his introduction, he writes: "Anyone, of any age, reading this volume will see quickly that I do not accept the category of 'Children's Literature,' which had some use and distinction a century ago, but now all too often is a mask for the dumbing-down that is destroying our literary culture."

But he is serious about children reading. "The child alone with her or his book is, for me, the true image of potential happiness, of something evermore about to be. A child, lonely and gifted, will employ a marvelous story or poem to create a companion for himself or myself. Such an invisible friend is not an unhealthy phantasmagoria, but the mind learning to exercise itself in all its powers. Perhaps it is also the mysterious moment in which a new poet or storyteller comes to birth."

He has put together 41 stories and 83 poems. With eight entries, Lewis Carroll has the largest number -- except, of course, for that immortal genius Anonymous, with 17. Bloom writes that he read most of what he has put in this book by the age of 15, but has gone on reading the pieces till today. He is 70.

He relates that he came up with the idea when he was working on How to Read and Why (Scribner, 2000, 283 pages, $25) -- his superb, delightful exploration of the purposes of literature, with this core conclusion: "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?"

That drives straight to the center of today's confrontation between terrorism and legitimate, democratic government. "The autonomous self" is precisely what the Taliban and all other primitive oppressors believe they must destroy or be destroyed by.

I read Bloom's remarkable introduction a couple of days before I planned to take up the book to write this piece. I thumbed about, lingering here and there. Some entries were old friends. Others were bits I did not know at all.

I had other things to do. I was drawn back to Bloom's collection early that evening, alone in the room in which I often work. I told myself I would read for an hour or two, and then begin in earnest a couple of days later. I had not had dinner.

It was well after midnight when I realized that I had been reading from the book's beginning, without stop, without consciousness of time. I got something to eat from the refrigerator. I went back to the book.

The collection starts with John Keats' "The Human Seasons." Quickly, it is followed by G. K. Chesterton's "A Crazy Tale." I suppose that I clearly remembered having read about half, perhaps a little less, of the content at one time or another in a fairly wordy life. Of that, a third became vividly revived -- even the pieces I had probably not read in 40 years: Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp," Mark Twain's "Journalism in Tennessee" (which should be obligatory reading for all journalists, and probably for all newspaper readers). Rudyard Kipling's "Rikki Tikki Tavi" -- to me, the most memorable of Kipling's animal tales.

There are several of Aesop's fables, and of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm's stories. There are contributions by Edward Lear, Stephen Crane, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lafcadio Hearn, Leo Tolstoy, Saki, Hans Christian Andersen, Dickens, Shakespeare, O. Henry, William Blake, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, H.G. Wells. It ends with Christina Rossetti's tiny, affirming poem, "Up-Hill" -- immediately preceded by Walt Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider" and Lewis Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter."

As I read along, one of Bloom's most perceptive declarations, in his introduction, kept coming back to me. It is this: "As we grow older, even when chronologically we remain quite young, we are likely to look back at our past selves with intense nostalgia. That nostalgia is not so much for the unlived life but for certain moments so rich in feeling and joy that we wonder if they can come again."

By the time my eyes felt full of sand -- beyond my windows, the gray sky was blushing pink -- that sentiment of Bloom's came rushing back to me. Feeling and joy had borne me through the night.

I went back to another of Bloom's astonishingly clean, crisp observations: "Every lyric and tale in this volume has scrubbed the varnish off the commonplace in order to reveal hidden magic." Can you think of a more evocative definition of the role and purpose of art?

If you buy a single book this year, with a vow to read aloud throughout the holidays, make it this one.

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