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The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages Paperback – September 1, 1995

3.9 out of 5 stars 96 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Discussed and debated, revered and reviled, Bloom's tome reinvigorates and re-examines Western Literature, arguing against the politicization of reading. His erudite passion will encourage you to hurry and finish his book so you can pick up Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens once again to rediscover their original magic. In addition, his appendix listing of the "future" canon - the books today that will be timeless tomorrow - is sure to be the template for future debate.

From Booklist

A review of 200 or 300 words cannot do justice to a book like this: it is the summation of a great critic's most fundamental beliefs--something like a dying Bernstein's last performance of Mahler's ninth, though in this case a lot less sad. In fact, this book of essays represents Bloom at his most celebratory, and there's a wonderful, vigorous energy about it. Why, one wonders, reading it, do we bother reading anybody but Shakespeare, Dante, or Chaucer? The argument for Shakespeare is particularly compelling. Bloom believes that Shakespeare is the canon: that he defines for the Western world the standards by which we judge all literature. And more: he defines for us what we are ourselves, what we understand of human nature. This argument, offered with Bloom's customary flare for the controversial, is akin to the remark that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, and like it, is probably in large measure true. Thus, modern psychology doesn't add very much to what people could have already learned from reading Shakespeare because Shakespeare defines the limits of what we know: we can't get beyond or outside him. Certainly, experience teaches that Bloom is right; indeed, the evolution of human consciousness seems to have taken one of its periodic jolts forward about the time of Shakespeare, and he above all seems to have captured the entire scope of what was new. As Bloom points out, Shakespeare is universally adored, in all languages, and perhaps it is for this reason. The essays on Dante and Chaucer are almost equally powerful, though in a sense less awesome. And the brief remarks about the powerful movements of resentment trying to push apart these great pillars of the Western canon, though perspicacious, are melancholy and incidental. Get this book for the great essays on Shakespeare. For lovers of literature, probably nothing more powerful or in an odd way more religious will be written this year. Stuart Whitwell --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1st Riverhead ed edition (September 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573225142
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573225144
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #86,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Since I am one of the "general readers" to whom Harold Bloom directed The Western Canon, I am not qualified to judge his critical opinions. All I can say is that Mr. Bloom's descriptions of canonical works made these works and their authors sound so rewarding that I began to read them. As soon as I read the chapter on George Eliot, I had to read Middlemarch. As soon as I read Mr. Bloom's description of Jane Austen's Persuasion, I had to read that novel. Especially compelling is Mr. Bloom's description of the competitive drive that pushes strong authors to attempt to write their way out of the shadows of earlier literary giants - a phenomenon that he terms "the anxiety of influence." This concept is most useful, Mr. Bloom argues, in helping us to understand Shakespeare's place at the center of the canon.
I began reading The Western Canon one year ago, and since that time I have, under Mr. Bloom's guidance, sampled hearty portions of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Eliot, Beckett and Proust, and have read tidbits of Whitman, Dante and Joyce as well. Harold Bloom is the teacher we all long for but seldom find; to him and to The Western Canon I owe the most intellectually rewarding year of my life.
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Format: Paperback
I first read this book about nine or so years ago, and I reread parts of it almost every day. So why am I just now getting around to reviewing it? Well for one thing I didn't have internet access when I bought it. But, I figured it's time to give the master his due.

This book has had the greatest influence on me of any book I have read in recent memory, for many reasons. To begin with, Bloom's erudition is staggering. That he could read all that he has, and in addition retain and catalogue all of it, is simply beyond my comprehension. Bloom focuses on 28 authors he considers canonical and provides extensive descriptions and quotations from their work. If I understand Bloom correctly, he regards these authors as comprising the Western Canon, but he also has an appendix listing hundreds of authors that, I think, comprise the national canons of different countries. Whatever. But Bloom's importance lies in providing vivid enough descriptions of some major works so that one is motivated to read them. In my own case, at least, he has succeeded brilliantly.

Solely because of this book, in the past few years I have done all of the following, which I might not otherwise have done: 1) Read Goethe's "Faust," Parts I and II. Part II is absolutely wild, and is every bit as great as Bloom says. 2) Read "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens, which Bloom regards as the greatest English novel. It probably is. 3) Seen a production of "Endgame" by Samuel Beckett. Not my cup of tea, but it piques discussion at least. 4) Read several novels by Cormac McCarthy, beginning with "Blood Meridian." Bloom regards McCarthy as one of many successors to Shakespeare. Bloom is right; McCarthy is a powerful writer. I don't think I had ever heard of him before I read Bloom.
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By A Customer on October 24, 2000
Format: Paperback
Harold Bloom has been, arguably, the world's best reader, the most wide-ranging and the most retentive. Some people believe his book, The Western Canon, verges on the audacious since Bloom dares to list what Western literary works are canonical as well as what ones will be.
While the appendices, with their lists of books, are the section of The Western Canon that provokes the most argument, these take up relatively few of the book's 578 pages. Bloom begins with a "Preface and Prelude," then indicates the mood the book will assume in "An Elegy for the Canon." Adopting Giambattista Vico's theory of history, Bloom then goes on to discuss twenty-six writers from different ages of literature. From the Aristocratic Age: Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Molière, Milton, Johnson and Goethe; from the Democratic Age: Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy and Ibsen; and from the Chaotic Age: Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa and Beckett. Just before the appendices is the "Elegiac Conclusion," in which Bloom says he has "very little confidence that literary education will survive its current malaise," but he hopes that there will be "literate survivors."
Early in the book, Bloom tells us that he is not interested in the debate among those want to preserve the Western canon and those who want to destroy it. Instead, Bloom is interested only in literary aesthetics and he claims that canonicity comes "only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.
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By A Customer on September 3, 2001
Format: Paperback
Bloom adopted Giambattista Vico's cyclical theory of history for organization of the western canon. Vico proposed that history is divided into three ages: an age of gods, an age of heroes, and an age of men followed by a chaos out of which a new historical cycle will begin. After his introductory Elegy for the Canon, Bloom skips the Theocratic Age, proceeding to the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, the Chaotic Age, and his Elegiac Conclusion. Each age has 6-8 chapters, each chapter devoted to an author or group of authors. The authors are, in order: Aristocratic: Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Moliere, Milton, Samuel Johnson, and Goethe; Democratic: Wordsworth, Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and Ibsen; Chaotic: Freud, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa, and Beckett.
He begins with Shakespeare whom he calls the center of the canon. Bloom exalts Shakespeare almost to a godlike state in his aesthetic zeal. In fact, every other author in the book is related to Shakespeare in some way. For example, Chaucer's Pardoner, he says, was a prototype for Shakespeare's Iago and Edmund. Tolstoy, he says, could not handle the influence of Shakespeare in his works so much so that he had to disavow him in his essay What is art?. The reason Freud believed Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford is that he could not himself reckon with Shakespeare's greatness and Freud's reading of Shakespeare was really Shakespeare's reading of life.
Bloom can appear at times a little too radical in some of his statements. For example he claims that the Jesus of the American religion is not the true Jesus of Nazareth, of the Crucifixion, or of heaven but only the Jesus of the Resurrection.
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