Harold Bloom

How to Read and Why

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How to Read and Why Summary

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How to Read and Why (2000) is a work of literary criticism by American critic Harold Bloom. By examining the works of Marcel Proust, Henry James, Thomas Pynchon, and many other titans of Western literature, Bloom seeks to develop a thesis on the value of reading great works and the specific pleasures of doing so. Unlike many of Bloom’s much-read earlier works, How to Read and Why received mixed reviews. At the Guardian, for instance, critic Terry Eagleton pithily observes, “This book provides us with a number of reasons to read great literature, but none at all to read Harold Bloom.”

In a preface, Bloom characterizes reading great literature as a supremely fulfilling and therapeutic act of healing: “Imaginative literature is otherness and as such alleviates loneliness.” In his survey of great Western works, Bloom begins with short stories. While obviously briefer than longer works of literature, Bloom extols the short story for the sense of closure they provide, which novels often do not. He agrees with Edgar Allan Poe’s guidance that short stories should be read in one sitting. Bloom draws attention to “Bezhin Lea,” a short story written in the mid-nineteenth century by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev. In it, Turgenev meets a group of impoverished youths who discuss faeries and other supernatural woodland creatures. The narrator points out that one of the youths, Pavlusha, will die years later after falling from a horse. Bloom says that reading “Bezhin Lea” provides a window through which “to better know our reality, our vulnerability to fate.” He goes on to discuss the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, in which he identifies a nihilism that resembles Shakespeare. Despite this, Bloom singles out Harry, the protagonist of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” as a Hemingway character who achieves a kind of heroism and redemption in the act of dying.

Later in the chapter, Bloom identifies a crossroads in short story literature that emerges with the arrival of Jorge Luis Borges’s work in the mid-twentieth century. From this point on, he writes, short stories are either Chekhovian—in that, like the works of Anton Chekhov, they take reality seriously—or Borgesian, in that they treat reality as something more malleable or playful. In both disciplines, however, Bloom emphasizes the psychological depths that are plumbed.

In the following chapter, Bloom examines poetry, which is “freer from history than prose fiction or drama.” He starts with small and self-contained poems that grapple with the limitations of the self and imaginative reality. While poems like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” confront these limitations with despair, the poetry of Emily Dickinson asserts itself against the morbid realities of death. Bloom then turns to longer poems such as Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” identifying Satan’s assertion of himself as both heroic and doomed.

Bloom turns to novels, identifying Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth-century work Don Quixote as the greatest novel of all time, owing to its playful and affecting portrayal of the friendship between the title character and Sancho Panza. He appreciates the novel’s capacity for irony, best represented by the works of the French novelist Stendhal and Jane Austen’s Emma. Bloom goes on to discuss the ways in which the motiveless criminals in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady test the reader to question their own assumptions about guilt and morality. This is also true, he writes, of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which a character is consumed by sexual jealousy and betrayal.

In the following chapter on drama, Bloom identifies William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the ultimate work of Western literature. He refers to it as the central text of the Western experience, outweighing both other works of literature and religious texts: “Hamlet’s consciousness and his language for extending that consciousness are wider and more agile than divinity has manifested yet.” His character, Bloom adds, invites the audience to participate in his skepticism and extreme ambivalence, an experience that runs the gamut from entertaining to exasperating. After devoting most of the chapter to Hamlet, Bloom also identifies Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play Hedda Gabler and Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest as other works that rebel admirably against reality.

Finally, Bloom examines what he refers to as “modern” literature, which he views as a project that generally bends toward the apocalyptic. In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab is a “negative hero,” hurtling toward destruction while worshipping a false god. In Nathaniel West’s 1930 novel Miss Lonelyhearts and in Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49, protagonists seek to create worlds for themselves but are met with utter failure.

Finally, Bloom takes stock of the future of literature, concluding that while much of the best of literature is behind us, the project of recreating various selves in literature for readers to encounter can never be complete.