Yale Bulletin and Calendar

September 1, 2000Volume 29, Number 1

Harold Bloom

Bloom extols pleasures of solitary reading

With the publication of "The Western Canon" and "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of the Humanities, established a reputation as an advocate of returning the "greats" of Western literature to college curricula and private bookshelves.

At the same time, the internationally known literary critic has decried what he sees as a sacrifice of traditional cultural values to political ideology and academic dogma. In his latest book, "How to Read and Why" (published in June by Scribner), Bloom makes a case for a solitary pursuit that he judges to be endangered in our society.

"How to Read and Why" provides a close analysis of some 60 works of prose and poetry while setting forth more generalized principles of good reading. "Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read" is one of those principles, as well as "clear your mind of cant." In the case of poetry, he urges his readers to "memorize, whenever possible." Most of all, though, he prescribes reading for enjoyment: "Reading well," Bloom notes, "is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is ... the most healing of pleasures."

Bloom, who this summer completed a nationwide book tour, spoke with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about "How to Read and Why." The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Whom did you have in mind as a reader when you wrote this book?

The best and kindest remark that I've heard about the book came over the telephone from [Yale President] Rick Levin, in fact. "I've read your book, and I think it's wonderful," he said. "It's a book for everyone." ...

Many, many years ago, I gave up on writing books for other critics or academics. Around 1982 or so I simultaneously started to write what turned out to be well over 1,000 introductions for Chelsea House anthologies of literary criticisms, and I tried to teach myself -- have taught myself -- a kind of "middle style," for, to quote Dr. Johnson, "the common reader."

I used to write very esoteric books, like "The Anxiety of Influence" and "The Map of Misreading." About the late 1970s and early 1980s, I pretty much despaired of the teaching of literature in all Anglo-American universities and colleges, which were tainted by what I call the "school of resentment" [studies of literature focused on issues of gender, sexual orientation, political ideology, multiculturalism, etc.]. In all but a few places, there has been a certain amount of what one would call the "politicizing" of the study of literature. So increasingly throughout the 1990s I've written books for the most general audience I could teach myself to write for and progressively, as I went from "The Western Canon" to that huge book on "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human."

In your book, you analyze some 60 works of fiction, not all of which would necessarily be familiar to the common reader. Would the reader of this book immediately turn to the works he or she is most familiar with?

I don't necessarily expect that anyone with this book, or with the Shakespeare book, or even with "The Western Canon" would read through from beginning to end. They can and should be read as a reader's companion. ...

It's a sampler. It has to be a sampler. I make that very clear at the start. The choice of poems, novels, plays or short stories is necessarily arbitrary. They could as easily have been 60 different works, by 30 different writers. That wasn't very crucial. Not at all.

Do you see this book as an exhortation to read more or to read better?

Publishers have two categories: What publishers call "inspirational" books and what publishers call "self-help" books. This is an authentic attempt at writing a really inspirational book about how and why one ought to read and also a kind of self-help book. ... I thought of the audience for it as the people, by and large, who have been buying and reading, because I have met so many hundreds of them if not thousands out on the road or when they wrote me letters. I can't answer them all. ...

My readers aren't academics. They're of all ages, from all professions. There really are still general readers, common readers, in this country.

Do you think that the population of readers is dwindling?

That's an interesting question. My good friend [the novelist] Philip Roth for years has been obsessed with the idea that every time one of his readers dies, nobody replaces that reader. I don't think that's necessarily true, as I told him. ...

I think solitary readers can be made by good education, by good teachers, but I also think they are born in many cases. I can't believe that they're going to pass away. So this is a book for the solitary reader. ...

There's no point, as I say at the beginning of this book, in quarreling anymore with the school of resentment. The real enemy [of reading] now is the screen. Whether it's the TV screen or the motion picture screen or most likely, in the end, the computer screen. The real enemy of reading is the Internet. There is a great gray amorphous mass in which everything will finally be equal to everything else.

You think the Internet has done more damage than television?

I think it will in time do a great deal more damage. The New York Times is sending me a computer which they have downloaded with Michael Crichton's new, I suppose you would call it a novel, a piece of popular fiction, an e-book. And evidently major publishers are more and more interested in e-books. You read them on the screen ... and when you're done with it, I suppose if you ever want to plug it back, you can plug it back again. But the idea of just holding a book in your hands and turning the pages or looking at a particular passage, that's over. ...

Recently there was a letter in The New York Times saying, "A book isn't the actual work. It's just a container." I guess I think of a book as like a person.

So a book is not just the words within?

No, it's not just the words, and obviously it's not just the physical binding. I don't want to sound mystical about it, but it's worth invoking a rather cabalistic notion of what a book is.

In a sense, when you're talking about reading, you're really talking about rereading, aren't you?

Exactly. I'm invariably talking about rereading. I went out of my way in this book to tell the reader that the first time I read "The Crying of Lot 49" by [Thomas] Pynchon -- whose earlier work I'd admired -- I was puzzled. I couldn't figure out what he was doing, and I didn't like it. I read it a second time, and it exploded on me. I urged people to read it and immediately reread it. ...

As one of the most distinguished living critics, do think you might actually influence people? Do you expect this work to have an impact?

Pragmatically, one hopes it can make a little difference, how much difference I could not venture to say. The Internet is an economic necessity. The Internet is going to swallow up a great deal of what we had considered our culture. And, of course, so-called popular culture -- which is neither popular nor culture -- has pretty much destroyed large areas of culture also. ...

On the question of influence: I've taught an awful lot of students. I've taught 45 consecutive years now at Yale University. I started teaching here in the autumn of '55, and now it's the spring of 2000. I tend to write pretty much the way I teach. So I guess the purpose of books like "The Western Canon" and the Shakespeare book and "How to Read and Why" -- which actually was a course here at Yale that I taught for two years -- is to try to teach the way one would teach here, but via the printed page, to a larger and more varied audience. ... I suppose over time one will reach a lot of readers, and I suppose over time one will make some difference to some degree. But one learns to be both wary and modest. ...

I certainly intend carrying out my final Yale classes. I'm never going to retire. ... Without pretending to be religious, I figure I really have an obligation to go on teaching. I think it makes a difference. Maybe in the end solitary readers are like solitary students: You can affect them, but you have to affect them one by one.

You talk about the "recovery of the ironic" as a principle of good reading. Could you explain that?

What vanishes in most ideological ways of reading and most politicizing of literature is irony, individual irony. But recovering it is harder than anything else. ... By irony I mean that aspect of literature that, rhetorically speaking, is always saying one thing while meaning something quite different. Sometimes it means the opposite of what is being said. ...

Clearly the most ironical of all writers is Shakespeare, and the most ironical of all characters is Hamlet, to the extent that Shakespeare is literature and to the extent that Hamlet is the central character, really, in all of Western literature, perhaps in the world's literature; he's the one who most engages us or seems to represent the most about us. Hamlet never says what he means. He always means something else by what he says.

If you lose the ability to handle irony, then you lose the ability to read. I don't know how you teach someone to be ironic. I say at one point in the book, you can't. I'm not sure you can be educated by a screen and be educated in irony.

Is this loss of irony an American problem in particular?

It didn't use to be. American humor -- frontier humor, African-American humor, other forms of American humor -- used to be ironic in the extreme. And of course the greatest of the country's humorists, Mark Twain, is also its most remarkable master ironist. It's very hard to recover Twain now as a writer because of the irony. ... More often than not he gets banned.

Are you pessimistic about the future of culture in our society?

There clearly has been an enormous amount of cultural and educational loss not just in literature. My last three books or four books are just rearguard actions. "How to Read and Why" is a rearguard action. I was trying to rally a remnant. I was trying to establish some continuity.

It comes down to something very simple. Either something written, something painted, something composed has cognitive and aesthetic value or it does not. To try to substitute a supposed cultural value for traditional cognitive and aesthetic values is just a lie, but it's a lie now sanctioned by society, sanctioned by the universities and sanctioned by the media. So what can one do with it? One wearies of the sound of one's own voice in denouncing this. ...

A university ideally should be some teachers, some students and some books. Obviously it isn't that any more. It can't be. I'm not sure what it will be in 20 or 25 years. Just as I'm not sure what publishing will be like in 20 or 25 years, I'm not sure what a university is going to be like.

Perhaps universities will be online?

I fear it.

-- By Dorie Baker


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