I admit I came into this book with some trepidation. Bloom has a reputation for being rather pompous. He spent a considerable amount of time in the aughties railing on Stephen King and bemoaning the popularity of the Harry Potter series. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I don’t really like people who spend a lot of energy being against something. It’s like the peace movement in the sixties. You only really remember John Lennon anymore because Lennon wasn’t really against anything. He was for peace. His friends, the radicals who befriended him when he came to America? They were against… Well… Everything. It’s why political movements usually fizzle out. No one wants to listen to you whine when you have no plan to do something about a problem.
Which brings me back to Harold Bloom, who spent a lot of time being against Stephen King for writing about monsters while he examined modern American life. And he didn’t like JK Rowling’s “style” in the Potter books. (In Bloom’s defense, neither did I. I listened to them on audio, which made for some great listening and let me into the stories much better.) But how did he get into a position to where he could rile people up? He isn’t the only tenured English professor at Yale or NYU, schools where he taught for decades. Why don’t we care what they say?
Because, my friends, Harold Bloom wrote some books about literature. And these books are about what Harold Bloom is for. So if you want to get someone’s attention and convince them to your point of view, tell them what you’re for. Maybe this should be required training for aspiring politicians. (That breathing sound you hear is me not holding my breath.)
Bloom introduces his book by telling us he is approaching 70 (He is now well into his 80’s), and doesn’t have time for subpar work. Never mind what he finds to be subpar. Ain’t nobody got time for that, including an eldery literature professor. Instead, he divides his book up into five sections: Short stories, poems, novels – part 1, plays, and novels – part 2. This is not an academic treatise, though it does have an academic flavor. No, this is a personal work. These are works that have resonated with Bloom, and he tells you why. Most modern literature, he posits, ties back to Shakespeare, though some of it, particularly short stories, owe more to Chekhov. Even poetry seems to flow from Shakespeare, and Bloom did something I had no idea was possible: Make me interested in Milton. I never liked Milton simply because he was a Puritan, a philosophy I never really cottoned to even as the child of Evangelicals. But Milton’s Satan, Bloom points out, is a rebel and truly the hero of Paradise Lost. Oh, the real Satan, for believers, is evil, but this explains why, and it shows why Old Scratch as a character is so appealing in even the cheapest of our entertainment. Milton was a subversive, and I am all about the subversive.
What really makes this personal is the final section on novels. He includes two African-American authors: Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. Morrison, he says, he cannot form a final opinion on because she is still working. Ellison, on the other hand, is the one writer in the entire book that Bloom knew personally. He relates a couple of discussions with the late author of The Invisible Man near the end of the book. Interestingly, he explains how Ellison had no black authors to draw from as white authors do from their European roots. Ellison’s Invisible Man is, by the author’s own admission, the spiritual descendent of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. And Bloom asserts that Melville, rather than Twain or Hawthorne (both cited as literary heroes by Bloom, but not examined), as the father of the American novel.
For me, How to Read and Why, opens up a treasure trove of work I might not have looked at before. I am, of course, an unabashed fan of Shakespeare and Hemingway. I’ve shied away from Dostoevsky for the sheer maddening length of many classic Russian novels. But poetry has always seemed a closed book to me. As much as I love music and even took a class dissecting those modern poets, The Beatles, as well as doing the same to the Rolling Stones on my own, verse has always remained elusive to me. I’ve written maybe two poems in my adult life, both to my wife when we were dating. (And those are best kept between us.) But learning how to break down a poem and put it back together in context (any context, not just the poet’s) is something that’s come to me late in life.
And that is why people get worked up over Harold Bloom. He started out talking about what he loves.