How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

I am full of contradictions. And here’s an example. I don’t like people telling me what to do, but I love reading books that tell me what to do and how to do it. Love it! No idea why. Maybe because if I don’t like what I’m reading I can just throw the book across the room, or maybe I’m just nosy and like to see what other people think, but in any case, that’s the story. This book had some interesting and sometimes very good points and how to read and why, but in other ways it really got my dander up. I was prepared to throw Harold Bloom (the book) across the room a few times, but that’s what made this book so much fun for me. It was like having a spirited conversation with someone who’s really knowledgeable about the topic at hand. In How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom sets off to teach us what books we absolutely need to be reading and (ta dah!) why, and how we need to be go about doing that. He is completely straightforward and doesn’t hold back one iota with his opinions; and while some of his theses were questionable to me, I enjoyed that I was being challenged to think critically about the arguments that he was making, and in some places agreeing to disagree. He is very passionate, extremely well-read and articulate about the western canon, which is his expertise, and fanatical about Shakespeare and Cervantes by way of Don Quixote. Apparently you know nothing about life or yourself unless you have read and thoroughly understood yourself through the experiences of the Don and Sancho Panza. I am of course picking at one of his most extreme arguments, but I have no doubt that he believes this. He spends the rest of the book expounding on his theories on them, and others of the western cannon, mostly white and mostly male. Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison are included at the end but they seem more like afterthoughts than anything else.
“How they read, well or badly, and what they read, cannot depend wholly on themselves, but why they read must be for and in their own interest.”
One of his main points, which I agree with, is that you have read book for yourself and for your own reasons, unfortunately he doesn’t seem to think that we can be trusted with what to read and how to read it. He instructs us that to read, we must look for the ironic, read without cant (“universities have empowered such covens as “gender and sexuality”, “multiculturalism”) , and make no attempts to improve your neighbor with what you have been reading. I also agree with him about cant with regard to not reading the work of the past with the judgments and expectations of current thought, but I do believe the canon has to be expanded to include other perspectives. Judging from the list of works that he has chosen to be read in this book, it would appear that he doesn’t agree.
“There are parts of yourself that you will not know fully until you know, as well as you can, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.”
I don’t think that anyone book can define the experience (or the life) of everyone, exclusive of any other book. The range of human experience and understanding vary too widely for one book to fit that bill. We see this all the time when one book galvanizes one person to redefine their entire life, while the same book barely makes an impression on someone else. I think we have to find our own books, and for some of us it might be Shakespeare or Cervantes. But definitely not for all of us. I am in big trouble if I have to read Don Quixote in order to fully know certain parts of myself, and I question the need to know such parts. To this day I haven’t been able to read more than a few pages of Don Quixote. I don’t think we can assume that we will be able to take the same knowledge and experience from each book because we might not be in the place to receive that level of understanding yet. Bloom likes to make bold and sweeping statement and arguments. It’s what makes him fun, if a little exasperating. I definitely rolled my eyes quite a bit while reading this. If you’re like me, you might find this book worthwhile, not because you will agree with everything that the author has to say, but because he knows his stuff (the Western Canon) and presents a strong case for the books he proposes you read, and clear arguments with which you will either agree or disagree. Bonus if you’re on a train in Italy, traveling through Tuscany, and reading is outrageous statements to your friend, parsing out the parts you agree with and debating the merit of everything else. The biggest problem that I had with the book is that he presents what should be read so certainly and from such a limited perspective. It’s a also a bit dry at times; I felt like I was drowning in the depth and breadth of his knowledge. However, if I ever had the time and inclination to read all the books he recommended I would be interested to compare my thoughts with his, and I might just do that with some of his list.

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