227 of 238 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2000
The title of the book is misleading. Those looking for, as the title suggests it is, a primer on how to read literature deeply will be disappointed. Aside from a few pointers in the beginning, Bloom really does not explicitly address strategies for how to read and appreciate literature. In my opinion, this is unfortunate because such a book can be written and would be useful.
What Bloom does instead is discuss a variety of novels and short stories. Perhaps Bloom is attempting to show how to read by providing examples of how he reads. As such, this succeeds, and the examples he provides are generally good ones.
I praise Bloom for writing as if he was one reader simply talking to another. I wish all his books were like this one. Gone is the academic Bloom who can't even take time to read his students' papers. That Bloom is replaced by someone who wants to communicate simply his love for books and for reading. Along the way he illuminates many of the novels and short stories he reviews. In this book Bloom follows the examples of his heroes, Johnson and Hazlitt, and brings readers closer to great books by showing what makes them great. Given the state of contemporary literary criticism, this is a welcome relief. Bloom returns to being what a critic should be.
189 of 202 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Years ago I read an article in The New Yorker (or maybe New York Magazine -- it's been awhile) about Harold Bloom's nocturnal pattern of staying up all night and reading. He apparently required only a few hours of sleep and spent the rest of his days and nights devouring books. On a typical night, he'd read 2-3 novels! We should be grateful that perhaps the most prolific reader of all time and an academic is able to magnanimously share his reflections in a jargon-free idiom so unlike most literary criticism. His prose is always clear and free of lit. crit. vocabulary that only a specialist would know. For that reason alone, this book is a terrific read -- it makes the reader want to go out and buy all the novels discussed and read them. What could be a better effect that a book that generates increased reading? I've enjoyed the five or so books I've read by Harold Bloom not to mention his "Bloom's Notes" series on great literary works that puts Cliffs Notes to shame. His literary knowledge is so deep and so wide that everyone, even teachers who spent years teaching these books, can pick up some useful information. I particularly enjoyed his emphasis on memorizing poetry and the effect it can have on one's life. He made me run, not walk, to pick up Stendal's The Charterhouse of Parma which I can't wait to read.
195 of 209 people found the following review helpful
Simply said, this is a wonderful and important book. I am not generally a fan of Bloom or his curmudgeonly notions, but in this case I heartily agree with both his diagnosis of our current intellectual dilemma and his proposed course of palliative intervention; introduce the younger generation to the depth, breadth and scope of an introspective world open only to those who love to read. That run-on sentence out of the way, I musty add that his approach to enticing the reader into initiating the habit of regular meaningful reading is a joy to behold.
Anyone honest enough to admit our puzzling and debilitating national obsession with the superficial and intellectually vapid electronic media should also appreciate what Bloom has to say about the qualities of mind at risk in a culture so singularly devoted to the superficial, flashy and insubstantial products emanating from every social orifice; television, movies, radio, video games. He argues quite persuasively that such devotion to the superficial products of a shallow and diversion-oriented public is precisely what is dumbing-down our society.
The obvious cure, for Bloom, is to institute a cultural program of reading, which he feels leads to a great deal more introspection and independent thought. Of course, those of us who are peripatetic readers understand how profoundly the qualities of one's individual consciousness are affected by the kinds of quiet and personal attention one pays to what is going on in the printed pages we are so drawn to. Yet we also understand how difficult it is to explain to non-readers just how much exposure to the panorama of intellectual, literary, and cultural ideas and conventions affects the way a reader perceives, interprets, and interacts with the world outside his or her doors.
For Bloom, reading represents the single best hope we have to wrest the culture away from the intellectually deadening world of ignorance, blind conformity and indifferent willingness to accept facile and anti-democratic ideas that equate citizenship with nominal participation through voting, or success with material acquisition, or social & cultural contribution with personal career progress. This is a thoughtful, sometimes wry, & consistently surprising book, one that each of us can benefit from reading. I recommend it to anyone as concerned as I am with the all too apparent "dumbing-down" of America.
53 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2002
I can't help but compare Harold Bloom with the late Clifton Fadiman-another prolific reader and reviewer of great literature. I have used Clifton Fadiman's "The Lifetime Reading Plan" as a reference book for years and thoroughly enjoy his insight and crisp writing style. In my humble opinion, Mr. Fadiman was at least as well read and erudite as Mr. Bloom. The difference between the two is that Mr. Fadiman `s writing is all about the literature (not about Mr. Fadiman) while Mr. Bloom keeps getting in his own way-he can't seem get over himself.
My husband gave up reading "How to Read and Why" in disgust after the first five pages. That's really a shame because, despite his self-absorption, Mr. Bloom has a lot to say, and his pompous pedantry does calm down quite a bit after the prologue. I was fascinated with Mr. Bloom's thought process and his love for his subject matter is absolutely contagious. I was even enthralled by the chapter on poetry. I had never given any thought as to why (for me) poetry is so difficult to absorb and therefore, to appreciate. His advice to read, reread and memorize came to me as a revelation (despite my grade-school exercises memorizing poems).
The chapter on short stories was enlightening-I never understood the difference between a short story and a novel, aside from the length. I'm still not sure I have a perfect grasp of the difference, but I know it's more than just the length of the work... It'll be fun to start reading short stories looking for short story attributes. Mr. Bloom's analysis of Hamlet was also enlightening (a gross understatement). It reminded me of a college lecture-an enjoyable college lecture-and made me hungry for more.
My advice is, don't be put off by Mr. Bloom's style. He has much to offer. You may not agree with everything he has to say (or how he says it), but he'll sure make you think and probably learn something about yourself, and that's one of the best reasons to read!
62 of 66 people found the following review helpful
This is an excellent and interesting book, but it has relatively little to do with the title. As I always do when the title is misleading, I rated the book down one star. If the book had a more accurate title (something like One Reader's Enjoyment of Literature), I would have happily rated the book with five stars.
On the other hand, I am indebted to the title because I might not have read the book otherwise. Because of that I was tempted to revise my rating to five stars. But I felt a need to be consistent that may be "the hobgoblin of little minds."
Having avoided all literature classes after high school but having enjoyed the great literature I have read, I was interested in a book that would expand my ability to perceive and benefit from fine literature. What I found was useful in that regard, but less so than a fuller treatment might have been. Let me explain what is in the book, and then go on to what is not.
This book is organized into five major parts: Short Stories; Poems; Novels, Part I; Plays; and Novels, Part II. The format for each is an introduction about Professor Bloom's choice of literature to elucidate, then a series of short sections that analyze a few passages from each work, followed by a summary that puts the works into themes and connects those themes to the benefits that a reader may seek. The major exception is the poetry section which does provide readers with guidance on how to read: On first reading, use an annotated guide to explain the words and the allusions (what I assume he means by mediation); read aloud; reread; memorize; and recite aloud when the poetry strikes you as relevant to the situation or the moment. I suspect that more than poetry would benefit from this approach. Ulysses is a case in point.
In the preface, he encourages us to embrace literature directly in other cases. He is very concerned that the philososphy of the day may divert our attention from the subjective lessons otherwise from within ourselves. He often repeats that written words are more than marks on paper, that the feelings evoked are more important than the things described, and that literature creates the possibility of expanding our ability to communicate and to appreciate. He seems to be a bit discouraged about trends in readership, citing concerns about whether good novels will be able to sustain the necessary audience to support their continuance.
What I found most beneficial about the book were his descriptions of works that I had not read before. I considered it a great treat to learn his views about what he enjoys and why, among all of the vast amounts of literature that he must have read. From this, I was able to locate works of literature that I would like to explore. So think of this aspect of the book as being like an Amazon.com reader review. Except, of course, he has more knowledge and skill at this than do I.
The second most beneficial part of the book was his creation of themes in literature, as he perceives them. While one may or may not agree with those themes (they are very simple), they certainly do add another element to consider when one reads a given work.
On the works themselves, you may (if you are like me) disagree with his reading in a particular case. That's perfectly fine with him. In fact, reading his interpretations of a passage after developing my own created a sort of mental dialogue between us that I found interesting. If I ever meet Professor Bloom, we would have a great deal to discuss in an enjoyable fashion. In fact, given that this is a popular book, I suggest you read it in part because you can then use it as a Rosetta Stone of sorts to compare your views with others who have also read it. That would be much more enjoyable than most of what people who have just met discuss at cocktail parties.
As Professor Bloom points out, a common theme in literature is the inability of people to communicate to one another . . . because they do not listen. He has described my old friend, the communications stall.
I have two primary regrets about this book (other than wishing he had included more of his favorite works). One, that Professor Bloom did not personalize it more. He might have explained how his life's decisions and actions were affected by literature in critical instances. Two, that Professor Bloom ignored other forms of writing such as essays and nonfiction books. I assume he reads both, and I wish to know what he likes and why. In other words, I would wish to know Professor Bloom better through his book. I was attracted to the parts of his personality I became acquainted with and would have liked to have continued the conversation in my mind.
Enjoy this book, be enhanced by remembering the works he describes that you like, and delight in, the works that you will read because you learned more about them here!
Donald Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
52 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2000
Before he was even eight years old, Harold Bloom could chant the verses of Blake and Housman. This is more of an accomplishment than it might seem when one considers what Bloom was saying: "O rose, thou art sick!/The invisible word/That flies in the night/In the howling storm/Has found out thy bed/Of crimson joy,/And his dark secret love/Does thy life destroy."
Although these lyrics remain wonderful poetry, they are not what the usual eight-year old boy chooses to commit to memory. At the age of seventy, when this book was written, Bloom had not really changed so much from the precocious little boy he had been at eight. He was still chanting, still being pretentious and showy and he was still the world's premier reader. I don't know if Bloom was great fun when he was eight but he was certainly great fun at seventy.
In How to Read and Why, Bloom laments the death of memorized verse, telling us that people today now read far fewer poems than they did previously and with far less attention, simply because they don't have to. But, he goes on, the very fact that we don't have to is no excuse for not doing so. He exhorts us to try harder; learn more; read better.
Those who are familiar with Bloom will not be surprised to find, in this book, that he adores the poetry of eighteenth-century England. The poets writing at that time despaired of everything but a strong sense of self and its tremendous power of endurance. Bloom, himself, despairs of computers, television and anything else that draws our attention away from quality reading. Quality is the all-important key word to Bloom. Poe, Bloom tells us, wrote atrociously even though he remains immensely popular. du Maupassant, he says, wore Schopenhauerian goggles causing his short stories to be but distortions of human desire.
Even those who found The Western Canon dry and joyless will find Bloom's love of great literature, in How to Read and Why, infectious. If you've never read Proust, Bloom can make you wonder why. The same for Flannery O'Conner, Italo Calvino, Cormac McCarthy, Eudora Welty and even Robert Browning. "Information is endlessly available to us;" says Bloom, "where shall wisdom be found?" It is a rhetorical question only and Bloom provides the answer: here, in this book, and in the books he praises.
Although Bloom maintains that How to Read and Why is definitely not polemic, there are many, both within and without academia, who would certainly disagree. Speaking of universities in general, Bloom says, "A university culture where the appreciation of Victorian women's underwear replaces the appreciation of Charles Dickens and Robert Browning sounds like the outrageousness of a new Nathanael West, but is merely the norm...The poems of our climate have been replaced by the body stockings of our culture." You can't get much more outspoken than that.
Coming from anyone but the indomitable Harold Bloom, these assertions might sound somewhat pompous. When Bloom utters them, however, they sound, not only convincing, but refreshing. "If you wish to maintain," he says, "that Shakespeare's ascendancy was a product of colonialism, then who will bother to confute you?" Who indeed? Yes, some great literary works are unthinkable without a thriving empire, although a thriving empire says nothing about a work's shortcomings as a true measure of art.
Bloom rails against the collectivist, materialist demons who have all but destroyed American universities. At the same time, he champions the solitary reader, summoning the likes of Emerson, Dr. Johnson and Francis Bacon in support. The best advice, Bloom tells us, comes from Bacon: "Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider."
Bloom's fifth principle for reading, the recovery of the ironic is no doubt the most convincing argument in the entire book. For Bloom, the loss of irony is a terrible thing. It signifies, for him, the death of reading as a serious pursuit and the ultimate death of civilization. Hamlet is for Bloom, the master of irony; the man who says one thing and yet always means another. No one, says Bloom, knows how to read Hamlet anymore.
Anyone who reads this book should also read Philip Roth's novel, The Human Stain. Roth is nothing if he is not one hundred proof Bloom. The Ghost Writer certainly showed more than a little of The Anxiety of Influence. The Human Stain, however, is, in part, a violent critique of the coven of academic materialism so hated by Bloom. The same intelligence, the same zest for the sensual and the intellectual pervades both Bloom, in How to Read and Why and The Human Stain.
Bloom seeks to marry the intellectual to the sensual in our experience of reading as a difficult pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. This, says Bloom, is "the Readers Sublime." It is a sublime that helps us transcend loss, despair, grief, even death. It is the ultimate reason of how we should read and, more to the point, why.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
In the epilogue of this book Harold Bloom talks about Rabbi Tarphon's statement in ' Pirke Avot '(The Ethics of the Fathers) " It is not necessary for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from undertaking it". Harold Bloom has not desisted in reading and rereading the great works of Western Literature, and in so doing advocating to his readers that they too live in the 'enhanced consciousness' which great Literature gives. Here too Bloom reads and rereads some of the great works of the Tradition and provides whole new networks of insights and connections, inspirations and ideas for us to think about and make our own rereadings with. None of us Bloom laments will be able to read all the great and good books which have been written- and none of us will be able to reread as we could the great works already read by us, works which in some sense demand endless rereading- but each of us can be free to undertake the work and so far as possible know the joy and the difficulty , the pleasure and the insight , the sense of enhanced life, the love of meeting others and better knowing ourselves, which reading Literature gives.
Thank you Harold Bloom for enhancing our world with your exalted love of literature. May you go on reading and rereading for many years to come.
65 of 74 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2000
More than a mere summary of literary classics, this book is a passionate defense of engaged, informed reading. While the multitude (especially the young) read for credit, praise, or to pad college resumes, Bloom presents a more reasonable (and insightful) alternative: we read so that we might better know ourselves. Because Bloom abhors the current fashion of "socially relevant fiction" that attempts to right past wrongs, elevate historical victims, and assuage our collective guilt, he believes that only if we return to a "selfish" form of reading (in that the use, if there is any, for literature is to discover our natures as human beings) can we hope to resurrect the dying art of the novel. Bloom engages us in a journey through short stories, poetry, plays, and novels, always relying on the text (not some political motive or ideology) to illuminate our lives. Bloom cares first and foremost for the characters, situations, and language that allow us to connect in unparalled ways. That we as a nation should require a "why" when it comes to reading (and reading intelligently, for Bloom has no tolerance for our Oprah-ized obsession for supermarket drivel and tales of moral uplift) is depressing to be sure, but Bloom holds out hope. After all, he must. To contemplate a world in which we no longer have an answer to the "why" is one, frankly, not worth living in at all.
33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
It may seem a bit of a presumption to write a book entitled How to Read and Why, but Harold Bloom's is a gentle urging, a guidance and not a proscriptive lecture. Of course we have to realize that he is talking about reading literature, not science, not history, not politics, not pop psychology, and certainly not the latest best seller! Furthermore I'm sure his editor and publisher, looking to the marketplace, insisted on the spin, since this is first and foremost a work of literary criticism, and only tangentially a "how to."
Herein Professor Bloom, esteemed literary critic and internationally acclaimed scholar, discourses on mostly English and European literature bringing his usual infectious enthusiasm to the task at hand so that one is inspired to take up again Hamlet or The Charterhouse of Parma or to finish Proust. I have read literary criticism for many years, partially because when I was young I thought reading it would help make me a better writer; but as the years have gone by, more and more I read it as an inspiration to further reading and rereading. Bloom is a particularly good reading companion because of his great erudition and his love of literature, but also because he is a very fine writer himself, and one can learn from his prose.
His muse for the art and practice of reading is Dr. Samuel Johnson, whom he greatly admires, along with Bacon and Emerson. His "why" of reading, presented on page 22, comes from a (too studied, in my opinion) fusion of their reasons: "find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and that addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time's tyranny." For all serious readers, time indeed is a tyranny because there really are so many books and so little time.
Bloom organizes his book into five chapters: "Short Stories," "Poems," "Novels, Part I," "Plays," and Novels, Part II." The novels of Part I are European novels, including Don Quixote, Emma, Crime and Punishment, etc. Those of Part II are American, e.g., Moby-Dick, As I Lay Dying, Song of Solomon and four others. The short stories include works by Turgenev, Chekhov, Maupassant , Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Nabokov, etc. The poems discussed are all by our greatest poets, including Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Browning, Whitman, Dickinson, etc. There is a fine piece on Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Marnier." The three plays discussed are the Bard's Hamlet, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
Bloom makes it clear that his most admired writer is Shakespeare, on whose work he is an expert, and Hamlet his favorite play, a prejudice I share. Part of the fun of this book, however is in Bloom's asides on writers perhaps of the second rank, and his insights into the current status of literature. On display throughout is an incisive and authoritative writing style that one can only admire and enjoy, but not duplicate. Here's an example of what I mean from page 249:
"We will have no more Nathanael Wests; literary parody expired with him, though it had a brief afterglow in his brother-in-law, S. J. Perelman. Flare-ups of the mode in the late Terry Southern and in the metamorphic Gore Vidal have subsided. There were Hemingway's self-parodies, in his later years, and Norman Mailer's still later parodies, both of Hemingway and himself. All these formidable talents have been subsumed by American media realities; who can match television news and talking heads, and even the daily New York Times, in self-parody? Reality in American is more grotesque and hilarious than any parodist could hope to trump. There is something curiously wistful now about Miss Lonelyhearts, a judgment upon my part that would have infuriated Nathanael West. Still, he was not a satirist, secretly hoping to improve us, but a demonic parodist, providing some music to celebrate our march down into hell."
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2000
I recommend Yale Professor Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why (a title that itself requires close reading and thought) to those who, as I do, read a lot, wish to better understand and enjoy writers of great fiction, but lack the benefit of instruction in literary appreciation. I'd read only a dozen pages of the library copy of this book when I knew I wanted a copy of my own.
Bloom, a natural teacher, possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, instructs us and stimulates us with his love of great writing. He examines, in turn, 57 pieces of great literature in four forms: the short story, the novel, the poem, and the play. We watch him analyze and interpret great works by close reading and the exercise of his marvelous memory and imagination, revealing to us the insight, creativity, and emotions of the author, and his genius for expression. He encourages us to develop our own skills to perform this critical function and enrich our lives. As usual, the rest is left to the student, but Bloom has pointed the way.
For the dedicated, who knows? We may find ourselves thinking differently. Our own writing, whether formal, creative pieces or informal letters to friends, may even become more polished and interesting.