How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom – Book Review

how-to-read-and-whyHow to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom
Non- Fiction, 283 pages ~ Hardcover
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: 2000

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.

Have you reviewed How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom? Please e-mail me your link or leave it in the comments, I’d love to have it here.

6 Comments
  • Rose City Reader
    August 18, 2008

    I am going to have to add this one to my TBR list. I keep reading interesting reviews and comments about it — it’s time to read the book itself.

  • Nicole
    August 28, 2008

    I don’t even know if I agreed with half of what he said, but it was interesting to think about it. Some of it was wee bit dry, but I think that was mostly the poetry section, and I’m not really much of a poetry reader. I would love to know what you think when you read it.

  • Azriq
    September 6, 2008

    I have read this book.It is interesting the way Bloom presents his ideas and opinions;very subjective.Most crtitics still follow the traditional objective approach which I see as an exhausting endavour.I don’t believe in the idea of objective truth.

  • Rebecca Reid
    December 15, 2008

    I am in the process of reading all the books on his reading list as I read Bloom’s book. I agree his list is very limited, but I do think you pointed out, in this review, the main contradiction Bloom has: he doesn’t think you can teach anyone else from a book that taught you, and yet he claims that his favorites books can change our lives.
    I think his list and commentary is interesting insight into his reading development, and I still very much appreciate his reading list (I’m almost done reading the recommended short story authors and about to begin the poetry; I’m reading lots of other books in between so it’s going to take years overall). But I realize that it’s just one book out of many.
    Thanks for your comments, too!

  • Edward G Gordon
    September 30, 2010

    I have not been able to finish this book. I found it a tad too dry, not to mention opinionated. I thought that I might be able to find some helpful insights into how to get my own children to read, instead all I found was someone telling me what to read and why I should read it.

    I read for two reason to be entertained and to educate myself. They are not mutually exclusive but it is rare to find a book that is neither which in my opinion this book is.

    Anyway I might just try some of his recommended reading. I just hope that they are a little bit more lively than Bloom.

  • Vishy
    November 17, 2011

    Wonderful review! Glad to know that you liked some aspects of the book, though you might not have loved it overall. I found your comment – “He spends the rest of the book expounding on his theories on them, and others of the western cannon, mostly white and mostly male.” – quite interesting. Whenever I pick an anthology or a short story collection from the pre-World War II era, I find that all the authors included are male and white. I read a German short story collection recently and it had only white male German writers. I have a French short story collection – same! I am surprised that Harold Bloom seems to follow the same model – it is sad because it looks like he hasn’t changed with the times. If someone asked me to pick the ten greatest books of alltime, I would find it quite difficult, because there are hundreds and thousands of them. Every year I am discovering new books and writers which are as good as any other. Just because literary critics don’t spend time analysing their works or they are not included as part of the canon, doesn’t mean that they are not good. I think from a literary perspective, we are living in a Renaissance, when there are lots of wonderful authors writing lots of wonderful books. To attempt to come up with a prescriptive list is an impossible task. But being a critic and an academic himself, Bloom must be prescribing reading lists all the time and this looks like his attempt to do that for general readers. I have read bits and pieces of Bloom’s essays and I love his style. But he seems to be a traditional writer (or critic) from your description. I will, maybe, browse this book sometime, if I find it in the library. Sorry for boring you. Thanks for the wonderful review.

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