“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.