When he was 10 or 11 years old, Harold Bloom read the poetry of William Blake and Hart Crane and was profoundly moved. This led to a lifelong passion for literature and a career as one of our most distinguished and prolific literary critics. Much of that time, his influential and often controversial criticism was addressed primarily to an academic readership. More recently, his best-selling titles are mindful of what Dr. Samuel Johnson and later Virginia Woolf called "the common reader." Bloom notes, "If there is a function for criticism at the present time, it must be to address itself to the solitary reader, who reads for himself, and not for the interests that supposedly transcend the self."We common readers continue to be in Bloom's debt. His new book, How to Read and Why, offers not only helpful suggestions indicated by the title but also sophisticated and stimulating analyses of noteworthy short stories, poetry, novels, and plays. Drawing on the writing of Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Francis Bacon, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bloom formulates his principles of reading. In summary, they are: "Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads."Bloom is careful to state that the selections he has chosen to write about and quote from are "a sampling of works that best illustrate why to read." In the short story section, for example, the samplings include works by Turgenev and Chekhov as well as Flannery O'Connor and Italo Calvino. A surprise is the story "Gogol's Wife" by the modern Italian writer Tommaso Landolfi.
There are two chapters on novels, the first one with discussions of Cervantes' Don Quixote, "the first and best of all novels, which nevertheless is more than a novel," and Jane Austen's Emma, and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, among others. The second chapter on novels includes William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West. All of the books in this chapter Bloom includes in the "school of Melville" and his consideration of them follows an introductory section on Moby Dick. He writes there of Ahab being "American through and through, fierce in his desire to avenge himself, but always strangely free, probably because no American truly feels free unless he or she is inwardly alone."The longest discussion of an individual work is of Shakespeare's play Hamlet. It is a highlight of the book. Bloom says that "after four centuries, Hamlet remains the most experimental drama ever staged, even in the Age of Beckett, Pirandello, and all the Absurdists." He also comments, "Hamlet, like Shakespeare's disciples Milton and the Romantics, wishes to assert the power of mind over a universe of death or sea of trouble, but cannot do so, because he thinks too lucidly." The other two, quite different plays, discussed are Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
Bloom's passion for great literature is evident on every page. This book should be of special interest both to solitary readers and reading groups.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.