How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

“Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share one nature that writes and reads (34).”

Why do we read? What is great literature? And why read specifically great literature? Some would argue these are the questions that plague those who take literature seriously, the clandestine nightmares of the English Major who has doubts about the value of his scholarship and field of study, and the fundamental issues that spawn a mélange of half-baked theories and endless abstruse answers. In this appropriately titled book, literary critic Harold Bloom adds his voice into the discord in order to address why we should read and how.


Against the more recent trends of Postmodernist philosophy and politically-oriented scholarship, Bloom challenges the efficacy of literature as social program. Most readers don’t pick up a book to correct social wrongs of the past or present. Similarly, a book is not an essay, although granted some essays such as those of Montaigne can be great literature; it is more than just a contrived and artificial way to deliver an important social, political, or philosophical message. In other words, a big mistake of many literary theorists, teachers, and readers is to assume the point of reading literature is to get the message, along with the idea that the message can somehow improve society and correct social ills. Bloom sees the goal of reading as a slightly more selfish act in that it is meant to “to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests (25).”


In this view, the reading of literature is an important tool in forming ourselves, our identities, but more broadly it is there to help us discover ourselves. Although superficially similar to identity politics, this is a more radical statement than mere expressions of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Just as our first kiss, our first experience with the death of a loved one, and the birth of our first child are life-altering events so too is the reading of the great works of literature. We cannot improve the lives of others or society by reading great books in themselves, but we can improve ourselves and broaden our horizons, which then in an indirect way may allow us to help others. The great books allow us to experience lives, people, time periods, and worlds different than our own, as well as reflect on lives similar to ours, which further allows us to know more people and ourselves better by helping us take stock of what really matters to us. Fiction and literary language helps us escape our everyday worlds for a moment so that we can reflect upon it through another person’s eyes and through new symbols. Instead of a message delivery systems, stories, poems, essays, and plays are experience delivery systems! The style and presentation cannot be separated from whatever messages a book may contain.


Likewise, Bloom reminds us not to lose sight of literature as a type of pleasure or entertainment. Literary reading is a higher and more difficult type of pleasure than watching a funny Youtube video, but it still is supposed to be a form of enjoyment. It is precisely the mental effort required on my part to achieve the most enjoyment from its form that assists in its ability to cause deep change and cause self-reflection. Literature forces us to consider and weigh how the world is, our own relationship to it, and see it through the eyes of other people (whether the broader vision of the author or the individual characters), while there is a distinct pleasure in trying to understand and unravel some of its more difficult styles (sort of like putting the pieces together of a complicated puzzle).


According to Bloom, the best literature is idiosyncratic; it is unique, and each work is unlike any other work, yet simultaneously the best authors work within conventions and expectations of established literary modes, themes, and periods. For this reason, Bloom argues that there are no absolute aesthetic standards. It is impossible to declare what shared qualities all good books should have, except in a very general way such as their idiosyncrasy, since what makes a particular author great in terms of style and content is their ability to stretch conventions or break them in unique ways different from all other authors. The reason we should be selective with our reading is that we have a limited amount of time on this planet since we all inevitably will die, and so when we choose to read something it should be with the best and most fruitful books.


Along with these views about what makes certain works great literature and why we should spend our time reading such works, Bloom also offers his views on what makes a good reader. Here are some his principles of reading that he has picked up along the way:

  • “Clear your mind of cant.”

This idea derives from Samuel Johnson and suggests that we should let the work teach us how to read it. Good readers stop themselves from imposing their own desires or ideologies onto the work. Let the work reveal its artistic vision. No checklist criticism!


  • “Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or neighborhood by what or how you read.”


Literature can improve you by expanding your horizons, your imagination of what’s possible, it can teach you what people valued in the past, and offer insights into what makes your neighbor tick, while transporting you to different times and places, but Bloom warns that it won’t change the world for the better in terms of offering some kind of social program. At best, it can only assist indirectly by helping you learn what it means to be human and help you come to know yourself as an individual.


  • “A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light.”


This idea he borrows from Ralph Waldo Emerson. It suggests that authentic readers improve others and society at large by improving themselves through their books and studies. The reading of great books and the serious study of them is a reward in itself and generally improves the population by making them more educated and broad-minded.


  • “One must be an inventor to read well.”


Also an idea inspired by Emerson. This seems like it would contradict the first piece of advice to avoid imposing our wills on the text. However, this is about balance. The best literary critics and readers allow the text to dictate the themes and issues, but are still inventive enough to come to new and personal understandings and insights of works of literature.

Bloom demonstrates these principles by taking us through some of his favorite short stories, poems, dramas, and novels. In the realm of short stories he compares two modes typified by Chekhov and Borges respectively.

“We want them for different needs; if the first gratifies our hunger for reality, the second teaches us how ravenous we still are for what is beyond supposed reality. Clearly, we read the two schools differently, questing for truth with Chekhov, or for the turning-inside-out of truth with the Kafkan-Borgesians (86).”


On poetry he writes:

“Poetry, at the best, does is a kind of violence that prose fiction rarely attempts or accomplishes. The Romantics understood this as the proper work of poetry: to startle us out of our sleep-of-death into a more capacious sense of life. There is no better motive for reading and rereading the best of our poetry (142).”

Poetry awakens us from our quotidian routine; it pulls us out of the everyday, to help us see broader possibilities for our own lives and our relationship to the world.

This is what he has to same about novels:

“Major novels do, however, tend to address crucial enigmas, or brood upon central questions. One mark of good reading is to allow such enigmas or concerns to reveal and uncover themselves, rather than hunt them out too strenuously (196).”

A good reader knows that he should pay attention, but more importantly when to listen.


The Completed Stories by Franz Kafka (trans. various)

Franz Kafka’s tales are a strange assortment of bizarre fantasies full of psychological explorations of obsessions and invisible power struggles. Stories such as “A Report to an Academy,” “Investigations of A Dog,” “The Burrow,” “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” and even “The Metamorphosis” feature animals as the main characters, often imbued with a sense of human rationality, as a way of  critiquing various aspects of the human experience. For example, in “The Burrow” we read about a mole-like animal who obsesses over ways he can improve the defense of his burrow, all while fearing an imminent attack by a rival or a predator. His obsession over this potential problem prevents him from actually enjoying his time in the burrow, but Kafka implies it is the creature’s love of the burrow that causes him to obsess so much over its defenses. In other words, we want to protect and keep the things we love most, but our obsession over protecting that which we care about often prevents us from truly enjoying it completely. Yet, by the end of the story, a possible intruder is slowly moving towards the burrow; although perhaps this is all in the creature’s mind, his obsession transformed into an auditory illusion.

Characters succumbing to their obsessions might be described as a key idea that Kafka explores in much of his fiction. In what I would rank as Kafka’s second best short story, “In the Penal Colony,” we find an officer justifying the use of an elaborate torture machine to a famed explorer visiting a foreign penal colony. The officer believes that if he can convince the explorer of the efficacy and sacredness of this machine and its form of punishment, then he can defend the practice to the new commandant of the penal colony who has shown a dislike for the practice and is slowly dismantling it. The officer struggles to accept change and longs for the old commandant and the penal colony who occupied a kind of cultish religious position. As we learn at the end of the tale, there are stories that the old commandant would arise from the dead at some future date. Similarly, in “A Hunger Artist” which features a character who starves himself as a type of performance art, the reader encounters another character who struggles to adopt when society’s tastes change and they no longer care about his artistic efforts to starve himself. In both of these stories each character’s obsession, one with the torture machine and the other with the art of starving himself, serve almost as a kind of religious ecstasy they desire to achieve. The officer sees the torture machine as offering a sacred epiphany, while the hunger artist thinks that by starving himself beyond the permissible days of a performance, he will achieve a euphoric level of artistry. However, only they can see the secret glory in these activities, the outside world naturally views this as strange, cruel, and bizarre, suggesting our own petty obsessions that seem important to us might be at minimum meaningless to another and downright bizarre and dangerous at its most extreme. This focus on obsession and petty arguments continue in “The Village Schoolmaster” in which a schoolmaster and another younger researcher become intellectual rivals over their research and pamphlets about a local village mole. Nobody in the outside world, of course, cares about their frivolous debate, but to them it seems like one of the most important scientific questions in the world.

The most famous story of his shorter works is The Metamorphosis. One morning Gregor Samsa, the primary breadwinner for his family, awakens to find himself transformed into a gigantic bug. He is late for work and his family knock on his locked door anxious over his tardiness. His manager arrives to check on the reason for his delay. This draws the transformed Gregor out of his room to plead with his boss. When the manager sees him in this transformed state he tries his best to escape as quickly as possible, his family freaks out, and his father forces him back into his room by smacking him with a newspaper. The family shifts between anxiety and terror over their son’s new transformation, while Gregor starts adjusting to his new state, changing his dietary habits and beginning to crawl upon the walls. The family talk in private about how to deal with the situation, mentally, emotionally, and monetarily. To make up for Gregor’s lost revenue they all have to get jobs. Gregor continues failed attempts to communicate with his family members. For a short period they seem to grudgingly come to terms with his new existence, opening the door of his room in the evenings so he can listen in on the family during social hours after work. Then they invite some boarders to come live with them in hopes of earning a little extra cash and cheapen their living expenses. One night when Gregor’s sister plays the violin for the new boarders, the music attracts Gregor the vermin into the living room, which scares off the boarders. The family grows frustrated. His sister claims the monster isn’t really Gregor because if it was, then he would’ve left a long time ago for the sake of his family, and not hung around to be a burden upon them. Gregor in his despair over his family’s rejection crawls back into his room, weak from not having eaten much, and dies overnight. The family finds him dead the next morning. All of them call out of work because they desperately need a vacation from the stress they have experienced over the past few months and spend the day together.

Kafka’s work is more about symbols and textures than about plot. In his novel, The Trial, much of the novel is spent on Josef K.’s psychological reactions to an ongoing investigation for an unknown crime. Josef K struggles to make sense of the court system, and by extension the society that fosters such a system, while accepting and rejecting the help of others who might help him navigate such a convoluted and frustrating system, even as they themselves are a intricate part of the court’s labyrinthine nature. Josef K. fights to maintain a semblance of his normal life, while the investigation intrudes into that life, and his psychological reaction to his upcoming trial intensifies.

Likewise, Gregor Samsa tries to negotiate his everyday reality with this sudden transformation in his life. Instead of a trial changing his everyday life and demonstrating the precariousness of his relationships like in the aforementioned novel, the normal everyday course of Gregor Samsa’s life is interrupted by a transformation into a giant insect. So at heart of Kafka’s two stories are protagonists trying to make sense of their everyday lives and deal with the psychological repercussions of major devastating changes in those lives. More importantly, both novels share protagonists that discover that their seemingly high status in their jobs and families mean nothing once these tragedies; they have their realities turned upside down and in doing so learn that they never understood the nature of the lives and social existence to begin with. The two protagonists of Kafka’s stories soon learn how small and unimportant they truly are, how fortune and status can disappear in a blink of an eye. Even how our relationships with other people, even our relationships with our family, depend on the status quo. People are willing to extend their friendship and love when times are good, but willing to jump ship so to speak when time grow rocky and tragedy inconveniences them.

Kafka opens his narrative with Gregor awaking transformed after having some “unsettling dreams.” Many critics have tried to find Freudian connotations in the “unsettling dreams,” but the “unsettling dreams” seem to be more of an image there for contrast. The real world and the family’s reaction to his transformation is far more unsettling than anything that happens in a dreamscape. There is nothing so unsettling as the real world. Kafka’s story reveals how life itself seems like one long unsettling dream in which Gregory finds not a supportive loving family, but one that is terrified and antagonistic towards him. After being transformed Gregor Samsa loses his ability to communicate with his family. Kafka reminds us how much we take it for granted in everyday lives our ability to communicate with other people. Gregor Samsa doesn’t only lose the ability to communicate with other human beings, but he also loses control of his own body. He struggles to adapt to his new body. His insect body continually exudes strange fluids when he scrapes against furniture and Gregor struggles to negotiate his physical surroundings without arms or legs.

The books never offers a reason for his transformation. The transformation itself functions as a symbol for the alienating nature of modern social existence, an existence that even manages to alienate us from our own bodies. Without the ability to communicate to directly link him to other human beings socially, Gregor starts to adopt the habits of an insect, crawling across walls and eating rotten food. Kafka understands that it is only through social relations that we act the way we do, through the process of enculturation. Without language and the ability to communicate Gregor is cutoff from his family and culture, and by extension, his humanity. But is Gregor’s humanity lost forever? The ending denouement, if such a story has one, suggests otherwise in which he leaves his bedroom, unable to resist the attraction of his sister’s musical performance on the violin. His reaction to the music is strikingly human.

“Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.”

It is not clear in the text why he stops eating physical food, but I believe he is trying to kill himself. He has no reason to live since his family has abandoned him and he has been cast out of all social relationships. From his observations earlier in the novel, which mostly focuses on his family’s reaction to his changed state, his desire to communicate with them, reminiscences about them and his willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for theirs, I think we can conclude that he loves his family very deeply. The music his sister is playing feeds his undernourished soul. The music reestablishes for a moment his connection with other human beings. Multiple times in the narrative Gregor Samsa tells us that he planned to send his sister to a music conservatory as a Christmas present. The music connects him to that memory and to his life as a human being, it reconnects him to the love he has for his sister–the most human emotion of all. Additionally, music itself, and by extension art and literature, has the ability to connect and reconnect us with people. One almost wonders if his family had treated him differently, had demonstrated the love and compassion a family should have during such a crisis, if those feelings of love and human connection would’ve eventually restored him into a human being. Unfortunately that isn’t what happens and the music leads him out into the open, which brings on the final rejection of Gregor the vermin, denounced by his own sister, the very person who almost restores his connection with humanity through her music.

“You just have to try to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor. Believing it for so long, that is our real misfortune. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn’t possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will. Then we wouldn’t have a brother, but we’d be able to go on living and honor his memory. But as things are, this animal persecutes us, drives the roomers away, obviously wants to occupy the whole apartment and for us to sleep in the gutter.”

Kafka continually shows how major events can not only completely transform our everyday lives, but also our social relationships. His stories are there to remind us of the precariousness of our relationships with other human beings, how modern society alienates us from each other, and prevents us from true communication. Before the transformation Gregor Samsa is the breadwinner of the family. No one else works. Gregor Samsa complains about his early morning commutes and doesn’t seem to like his job, but feels an obligation to continue at the job he dislikes because his father owes a debt. Meanwhile at the beginning his father wakes up late in the morning and lounges around reading the paper. But suddenly once Gregor is transformed and cannot work anymore, everyone is able to get a job to help make ends meet. This of course raises an interesting question: why didn’t the other family members do this prior to Gregory’s transformation and strengthen their economic stability?

Clearly the rest of the family are capable of working, but instead they preferred to sponge off their son and have him pay off their debts. The whole story is essentially a reversal of this situation. He can no longer work because of his condition and they must support him. Far from appreciating all the help they received from him before the transformation, they resent him for not being able to continue with these arrangements.  They resent that he causes them to miss opportunities that would help them get ahead in life, meanwhile before the transformation he sacrifices for the family and keeps his resentments to himself despite his unsatisfying job preventing him from starting a relationship with any women or leaving his job and picking up a career he would find more satisfying.  He gladly sacrifices for them, but when the time comes for them to sacrifice for him they ultimately fail and voice their resentments out loud. This is a very cynical portrayal of the family unit, far more unsettling than the conceit of a person turning into a giant vermin. Kafka’s point seems to be you can’t trust family; they’ll let you down when the time comes for them to step up to the plate, but they’ll gladly mooch off you and drain you like a bunch of parasites and extend you their love as long as it is beneficial to their needs.

The Book of J by Harold Bloom

In this book, the great literary critic Harold Bloom attempts to tackle the J writer as an ancient poet. In some ways it is refreshing to read a literary critic who is not a professional theologian, religious philosopher, or even a trained secular scholar of Biblical studies. Bloom’s fame perhaps rests in his ability to continually extend himself beyond his original area of specialty, the English Romantic poets, and read and write about all areas of literature. To his credit, and out of necessity, he does quote some other biblical scholars, both theological and secular, to support his points and readings. Indeed, his entire reading requires him to accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to comment on the great “epic” writer who makes up the core of the Bible: the J writer.

The weakest part of the book is when Bloom attempts to imagine the life of J.  He surmises that J is a woman of the royal line, descended from David and Solomon, who is now living under the ineffectual king Rehoboam after the United Monarchy splits into two separate kingdoms. He also imagines her to be in literary competition and have a healthy rivalry with the Court Historian who wrote 2 Samuel who might also her husband. All of this seems to be a figment of Bloom’s imagination, which he readily admits, but comes off as bad literary criticism and history. Since many scholars consider the J source to be the oldest of the four writers, Bloom argues that J’s work is the true core of the Bible in which every other writer extends, challenges, or tries to edit.

Bloom is at his strongest in the book when he deals with J as writer and not when he tries to historicize his or her identity or surmise a make-believe background for the possible author. For him, J is a dramatic ironist rather than a theologian or historian. She isn’t interested in developing a cohesive or correct theology, nor does she want to portray history as it actually occurred. In fact, the way she portrays God in her portions of the Torah is rather irreverent. Her Yahweh is neither good or bad. He is more like a living force, with a personality that both destroys and creates.

“For J . . . Yahweh is not to be conceived as holiness or righteousness but as vitality. If God’s leading attribute is vitality, then his creature the human is most godlike when most vital. A monistic vitalism that refuses to distinguish between flesh and spirit is at the center of J’s vision, which is thus at the opposite extreme from either the Gnostic or the Pauline Christian dualism (277).”

He is a Being that unleashes potential, while preventing illegitimate expressions of potential. In sense, this is how you can read Yahweh and his relationship with humans and patriarchs throughout the portions ascribed to J. Yahweh is constantly molding humans beyond the initial Creation story, teaching them how to exist properly in the world, showing them His vision and expecting them to obey, and then sometimes reacting ferociously when they don’t.

“[His] leading quality is . . . The sheer energy and force of becoming, of breaking into fresh being (294).”

He sets the limits on human activity and potential, the boundaries, while always pushing them to be more, to thrive, but then coming back with a vengeance when they go too far. The patriarchal stories are about this give and take, push and limit relationship. The patriarchal stories are not real histories, but psychological dramas.

“Probing psychological elements in the stories of how Yahweh deals with Abram or Jacob or Moses is the heart of J’s activity as a writer (287).”

Her literature, as Bloom insists, is a literature of incomensurates. Human beings challenge God or obey Him or follow his voice (in the case of Abraham), but ultimately it’s a one-sided act. The fight to resist or obey God is a fight humans can’t really win, but the beauty of J’s art work is in showing that despite these incommensurates between man and the divine, man and other men, the humans still try to thrive and survive anyway. Some instances include Abram challenging the justice of God and haggling to save the city prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Moses the stutterer inflicting plagues on mighty Pharaoh, and even Pharaoh foolishly attempting to challenge the might of God, etc.  God is a force beyond their ability, yet many characters still strive against this incommensurate force. At the same time, He is the force that makes everything happen, blessing who He will and Creating.  Bloom’s insight into Yahweh’s character and central issue in his relations with humans: be like me, but don’t be too much like me.

For Bloom, J’s greatest originality is the scope of her work. It is full of puns, jokes, ironies, a God who creates and destroys, who pushes forward and limits, all while employing a minimalistic style. J tells wonderfully creative stories and probes deeply into the human mind, along with the unknown, while giving us bare minimum details, making her a master of minimalistic writing.  Likewise, her great character as an author is Yahweh. However, her portraits of Yahweh are anything but reverential. Only Shakespeare and handful of other writers outperforms her in their insight into humanity and sheer writing ability according to Bloom.  For all these reasons, this is a work that will probably annoy both traditional theologians in the way it challenges traditional readings and reverent portraits of God, as well as secular scholars in the way it abandons traditional scholarly standards, relies heavily on surmise and generalizations, and sometimes ignores scholarly debates.

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais (trans. J. M. Cohen)

Francois Rabelais earned his living as a physician, and earned his fame as a writer of the satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel. His name in the form of an adjective, Rabelaisian, has come to denote literary works or ideas, “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of character, or bold naturalism. “ Although not abandoning religious piety completely, the book brings an earthy materialism as part of its atmosphere, aesthetics, and themes. Rabelais brought his knowledge of anatomy directly into his fictional book, which often displays an obsession with the physical processes of the body. Pages upon pages are dedicated to farting and defecation. If Rabelais didn’t invent the fart joke, he made a strong attempt at perfectly it.

A good example of this use of anatomical descriptions and physical pleasures of the body can be found early on during the birth of Gargantua. These early chapters are dedicated to Grandgousier, the sire of Gargantua, and his wife, Gargamelle, enjoying a feast of tripe and booze out in the fields.  The consumption of too much tripe causes Gargamelle to go into a painful labor. It is so painful that she threatens to chop off her husband’s genitals so that she never has to experience anything so painful again, but then concedes that she is jesting as she quite enjoys his intimate parts. Then finally comes Gargantua’s miraculous birth from Gargamelle’s ear!

“By this misfortune the cotyledons of the matrix were loosened at the top, and the child leapt up through them to enter the hollow vein. Then, climbing through the diaphragm to a point above the shoulders where this vein divides in two, he took the left fork and came out by the left ear (52).”

Here the description allows Rabalais to show off his learning as a physician, while also describing her body as a veritable maze and serving a playful take on the miraculous birth narrative found in so many ancient sources. Meanwhile, these opening chapters that involve feasting on delicacies, drinking, arguments about body parts, and a fairly graphic birth sets the earthy tone for the rest of the work with its focus on the pleasures, pains, and physical realities of this life. All these fart jokes, bodily pleasures, and descriptions of anatomy serve a crucial purpose in the narrative. They are there to remind us that although God and the afterlife are important, we must also not forget to enjoy the physical pleasures of this life. Indeed, each book begins by addressing his audience as a bunch of wine-guzzling drunks. The ethos of the book might be described as: drink today and enjoy life with all its varied pleasures and colorful cast of characters, for tomorrow you may die!

Gargantua and Pantagruel consists of five books. The first two books explore the birth, childhood, education, and victory in battle by both Gargantua and Pantagruel respectively. Gargantua defeats his former friend and ally, Pirochole, who invades Gargantua’s lands after the latter overreacts to an incident between their peasants over a bunch of cakes. This leads to many funny incidents; in particular, the extremely bad advice Pirochole receives from his advisers that he should use this military invasions as the beginning of world conquest and that his victory over the rest of the world is assured. The final three books involves the cowardly and wily Panurge, a friend and companion of Pantagruel, who wants to get married, but fears becoming a cuckold. Pantagruel convinces him to consult different oracles and omens in an attempt to learn what will happen should Panurge choose to get married. All the omens point to the fact that he will be a cuckold, beaten, and robbed by his future wife, but Panurge keeps interpreting these same omens as being favorable to him. At last, Pantagruel, Panurge, and their other companions go to seek the advice of the Oracle of the Bottle, which leads them to brave dangers at sea and visit many strange islands.


The Renaissance saw the birth of the Humanistic spirit through the rediscovery of Ancient Greece sources and forgotten Latin ones, especially new works by Cicero. Like the essayist Montaigne who often developed his thoughts on a topic by turning to the Ancient writers as exemplars for a deeper perspective, the characters throughout Gargantua and Pantagruel quote ancient sources from the Greek, Latin, and sometimes the Bible as support for their arguments about life. Cicero is an especial favorite, and is not only treated as a talented rhetorician, but a topnotch philosopher, reflecting his important status for the Renaissance Humanists.


This new learning and its contrast with the old ways is a major theme within the book. Gargantua is originally being “educated” by Sophists and this causes him to lead a wasteful life gaming and boozing, and doing little of value. Similarly, the old-style of medieval education, even particular textbooks, are castigated in favor of learning to read Latin and Greek, and reading the original ancient sources. In the Humanist tradition, Rabelais hints that the point of education is to make virtuous human beings who enjoy life, but also balance it with wisdom, bravery, and other desirable attributes. After receiving a better education, Gargantua comes to embody many of these characteristics, but it is Pantagruel, his son, that represents the epitome of this educated virtuous human. It is Pantagruel who is celebrated for his learning, who shows prowess and bravery in battle, but also honors his friends, and maintains an appropriate balance between religious sentiments and enjoying the pleasures of this life. Pantagruel is the righteous and rational anchor that balances the narrative’s bawdiness and some of the characters’ less virtuous and irrational tendencies, especially Panurge, who shows a wily and cowardly nature, and whose pranks on those who irritate him sometimes lead to their death or extreme humiliation.

The final books where they visit many strange islands is a forerunner of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and reflects the age of exploration. At one point, Canada is mentioned explicitly as is the Protestant reformation. The islands are full of strange wonders, giving us a sometimes over the top depiction of how Europeans must have viewed these new “worlds” full of “strange” peoples, while also allowing Rabelais to satirize his own culture, such as when they land on an island full of Papists who are obsessed with Papal decretals as if these official decrees by the Popes over the ages are even more important than the Bible itself.

Faust, Part 1 by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Selling one’s soul to the Devil is a common trope in various forms of media these days. The psychological literary power of such a trope resides in the duality inherit in Christianity between spiritual gain in an unseen spiritual realm versus material gain in this world. In most cases where a character sells their soul, they are trading their spiritual reward for some material desire in the here and now. On a more fundamental psychological level, they are trading long-term satisfaction for instant gratification. The Faust tradition represents one of the most famous traditions of this literary trope. The most famous versions of the Faust story were created by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and the Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.


Christopher Marlowe’s version of the play presents Faust as a dissatisfied scholar who employs magic to contact the devil. He makes his deal with the devil in order to discover the ultimate answers hidden from humanity and experience forbidden pleasures.  Marlowe’s work serves as a meditation on the dangers of giving up one’s soul for forbidden pleasures and secret knowledge in this world.


Goethe’s Faust also is a scholar. He has mastered the fields of law, theology, philosophy, and medicine. He, too, has elements of the dissatisfied scholar, but Goethe goes further with the character and presents a Faust that is tired and weary of life in general. Faust makes a deal with Mephistopheles to experience the world and find the elusive sense of joy in life that books and immersing himself in scholarship have never brought him. Much like Marlowe’s Faust the work critiques the formal education systems of the time, and draws on the general human desire to know and explores the limitations of knowledge, but Goethe’s version shows us a Faust who wants more than just new knowledge, this Faust seems hungry to experience life to its fullest. This Faust feels that all this study has been a waste of time. He makes the deal not only from a desire to have new experiences, but also because at this point he has come to believe he will never experience true bliss so in a way the deal seems like a good bet. He will only lose his soul if Mephistopheles can get him to experience a moment which he doesn’t want to end. Since he believes he can’t experience such happiness, it seems unlikely to him that he will ever lose the deal.

Goethe also recasts the play into a failed love story, which aligns it with his other work, such as his novels, which also features relationships that falter. In this version, Faust pursues his lust for the pure-hearted innocent and religiously inclined Gretchen, which ends up ruining the life of Gretchen. Goethe reminds us that the pursuit of our own selfish desires can harm other people. It also adds another dimension to the deal with the devil trope as Faust not only promises his own soul, but almost costs Gretchen her soul. She even kills their child in a fit of madness after Faust disappears for a while, which perhaps is an allusion to Euripides’ Medea who also murders her own children when Jason abandons her. Faust functions as Gretchen’s devil, her temptation, the irresistible force that causes her to betray the moral standards in which she has lived the first half of her life. Why does she go along with this temptation? I think Goethe implies that for all her humble peasant upbringing in contrast to Faust’s elite education, she also feels a dissatisfaction with life.

The beginning prologue in which Mephistopheles asks permission from God to tempt and corrupt Faust is an allusion to the biblical Book of Job. Unlike Job who begins with everything a person could want and has that taken from him, the situation is flipped, Faust has nothing he wants in life and makes the deal with Mephistopheles to find the happiness that is missing from it. Job is brought to the height of unhappiness only to be confronted by God and have new rewards bestowed upon him for his faithfulness, whereas Faust sells his soul and betrays his loyalty to God to find elusive happiness in the world.

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steve Sloman and Philip Fernbach

The authors of this book tackle three central ideas: why are people ignorant, why do people think they are knowledgeable when they are actually ignorant, and the importance of recognizing that knowledge is communal. They use a combination of scientific studies, philosophy, and real-world examples to address these issues.

The modern world is extremely complex with technologies that make life very convenient. However, how much does the average person really understand about these technologies? Oh sure, you know how to push the button on your Keurig machine and brew an instant cup of coffee. If you opened up the Keurig and dissected it, would you know what each and every part does? Do you really understand how it works? For that matter, do you know how your toilet works? Yes, you can flush the toilet and use it for your practical purposes. But what happens once you push that lever? The average person probably could not give a detailed causal explanation about what happens underneath the toilet once you flush, how each component works, and the scientific principles behind it.

People often overestimate their knowledge about how the world works. They think they know how the toilet works, how the Keurig works, or even all the nuances behind complex political policies or social problems. As many studies have shown people experience what psychologists call an illusion of explanatory depth.  One way psychologists have studied this phenomenon is by having people rate on a scale from 1 to 7 how well they think they understand how something works (like a zipper or a toilet or a computer), then they ask these same people to describe in detail all the steps of how the object works, and finally they ask them to rate their knowledge a second time on a scale from 1 to 7. Typically, people rate their knowledge lower after they are forced to explain how something works and realize they can’t do this.  The illusion of explanatory depth goes beyond technical knowledge as well. Similar studies have been done involving people’s political positions on controversial policy issues. People rated how well they thought they understood a particular political policy. Then they were asked to generate causal explanations and explain how each of these policies actually worked with step-by-step details. When many people realized they couldn’t do this, they lowered their political extremity. The authors of the book also mention that there was a control in some studies where they did the same basic procedure, but instead of asking people to explain in detail how a policy worked, they simply were asked to explain their reasons for holding their position on the policy issue. In those instances, people had no shift in attitude.

Humans are causal reasoners. We evolved to have two types of reasoning as outlined in dual-processing theory. These two types of causal reasoning are fast versus slow, intuitive versus reflective, shallow versus deep. The two types of reasoning can lead to different conclusions. By asking people to reflect on how something works with detailed causal explanations it seems to force people to activate the more reflective type of thinking and make them deliberate on their lack of knowledge. Tests such as the Cognitive Reflection Test has shown that some people are naturally more deliberative and reflective thinkers and less prone to illusions of explanatory depth.

Often it’s the very complexity of our knowledge and technology that fuels the problem. The internet is a wonderful resource, giving us access to a great deal of knowledge in the world, but this can give us the illusion that we know the information ourselves. People often confuse the knowledge in their heads with the knowledge outside of themselves; they confuse the knowledge they possess with the fact that they know where to get the knowledge if needed.

Experts are also less prone to mistakes in knowledge, especially as it relates to their own field. After all, that is why they are experts; they have put a huge investment in time to learn the information in a field, its methods of knowing, and specialize in particular sub-areas. However, the authors note that even experts and scientists are prone to illusions of knowledge, which can lead to some catastrophic blunders. One example is the detonation of Castle Bravo where scientists underestimated the power of nuclear reactions. Likewise, many individual academics, and sometimes groups, will fail to accept new ideas that don’t conform to previous conceptions. It takes long periods of time for those new ideas, if they have validly and evidence, to replace the old. It is also important to realize that the financial security of many scientists, archaeologists, historians, theologians, and other types of academics depend on convincing the larger world and their fields of their importance. In other words, we always need to keep in mind that even academics of various stripes aren’t completely unbiased neutral individuals. They, too, get a pay check usually tied to their expertise. That engineer has reasons to convince you that bridge needs repair, that chemist working for the pharmaceutical company has additional reasons for you to buy that new medicine. However, at the same time, while acknowledging this facts, the expert is still our best to get accurate knowledge. He belongs to an entire field, an entire community of other experts, who will challenge and test his or her ideas, others who will sift through their results, and others who are performing their own studies to compare with previous results. Likewise, the individual expert is not only a master of his particular sub-domain, but also understands what they don’t know yet about their direct area of study or even a different area of study within their field.


This leads to the most important idea of the book: that knowledge is inherently communal. We can’t be an expert in everything. There is simply too much to learn in a modern society. Very few people can be an expert in one field, let alone multiple fields. Therefore, we need to accept the inevitability of ignorance; not only the ignorance of other people, but our own ignorance. As the authors point out, the issue isn’t ignorance itself, which can’t be avoided, it’s our failure and unwillingness to recognize our ignorance. However, we don’t have to know everything since we belong to a community of knowledge.  There are other people who are experts who can answer questions when they arise and there are areas where we are experts. We each have a part to play in the community of knowledge. This has important implications for education. Most people conceptualize education as having the purpose of creating independent thinkers or to learn key facts from various important fields of knowledge. Instead we should become experts in areas that interest us, develop general critical thinking skills to evaluate areas that we don’t know much about, and knowledgeable about how to locate information when we do need it.

The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov’s four major plays all feature characters who come to realize that they’ve wasted their lives and have not found happiness. These various characters are stuck in a rut, unable to change and adapt to the times. They are plagued by the hard truth that it is now too late. The plays share many of the same themes as his short stories, but whereas the form of the short story required him to focus heavily on a few set of characters and usually interpersonal romantic relationship, the form and structure of drama, with its many characters who have speaking parts, allows him to explore other types of relationship besides romantic ones.

The Seagull is a play about Konstantin Treplyov who lives in the shadow of his mother, a once famous actress. Konstantin aspires to be a renowned writer and finds himself envying Boris Trigorin, an already established writer, who is visiting his uncle’s estate because he is persuing an affair with the mother. While on the estate Trigorin begins a second affair with the son’s current love affair, a young countrygirl named Nina, who aspires to be an actress. Living the shadows of others accomplishments, losing his girlfriend to the writer he envies, and struggling to find his own artistic voice leads to suicide. This is about a boy struggling to find his place in the world. However, Nina’s struggle to fulfill her dream and become an actress parallels Treplyov’s struggle to become a writer. Everyone struggles to achieve the dream. Meanwhile the mother struggles with letting go of the past and being the parent she ought to be with her obviously mentally ill (depressed?) child. The mother seems to genuinely love her son, but she loves her lifestyle, fame, and vanity more. The play gives the impression that she persues her affair with Trigorin because it puffs up her ego and makes her feel young, beautiful. and famous like in her old acting days.


Uncle Vanya is about a man called Uncle Vanya who has given up a large portion of his life and financial security managing an estate in order to pay for the lifestyle of his brother-in-law who was a professor at a university. Now that the professor has aged, become sickley, and is living with a wife far too young for him, Uncle Vanya has come to the realization that all this sacrifice was for nothing. The professor’s scholarly work and ideas were frivolous and he is a selfish man who doesn’t appreciate the sacrifice of others. Uncle Vanya resents the life he has given up for him. He is especially concerned for Yelena, the young wife, who has her whole life ahead of her, but has given it up to the idea of remaining loyal to her aged husband. There are hints that Vanya secretly loves her, but it his concern can also be fueled by his desire to keep Yelena from the same fate of sacrificing her youth in order to support the professor. In other words, Vanya sees himself and his greatest mistake in her. It is really a depressing story in many ways; Uncle Vanya suffers terribly over the fact that he never lived his life because he sacrificed for the good of another whose work amounted to nothing useful. It’s a play about sacrificing our life to a delusion.

The Three Sisters is a play about three sisters and a brother living together after the death of their father and how their lives revolve around a group of army officers. They lonng to return to the city-life of Moscow where they spent their youth, but never manage to return. The brother marries a woman who is cruel to the servants and who cheats on her husband behind his back with a local town official, while the brother gives up his dreams of becoming a professor at a university. Instead he joins the local town council with the very man cheating on his wife and sinks into heavy debts from gambling. One of the sisters, Irina, chooses to marry one of the officers after he leaves the army, although she does not love him. She does believe she could have a good life with him despite the lack of love. However, he dies in a duel with another officier who loves her as well and vows to fight any rivals. This was my least favorite of the four plays.


The Cherry Orchard is about a noblewoman in severe debt who must do something to save her estate, but she is incapable of changing her frivolous ways. She continues handing out money to anyone who asks, holding parties she cannot afford, and is unwilling to chop down her prized cherry orchard in order to make vacation housing that would bring in enough money that would allow her to keep her property. This solution is offered by a local businessman and the son of a former serf who once worked on the same estate. So when the time comes for the auction to buy the property he is the one who ends up buying it and carrying out the plan. It shows the fuility of being unable to change one’s habits and ways in the face of a crisis. The cherry orchard that the noblewoman wanted to save will be cut down anyway. Many of the characters in the play are elderly nobility who cannot move beyond the past and reminisce about the glory days when the peasants were serfs who served them. The noblewoman who owned the estate suffers from a personal tragedy in the past that haunts her: the death of her son. The cherry orchard represents different things to different characters: a beautiful aesthetic object that should never change, a potential source of profit, and a connection to a lost past where nobles ruled and peasants served. It is a drama about the dangers of being unable to adapt to life’s changes.