A Conversation with Harold Bloom author of How To Read and Why
What inspired you to write How To Read and Why?
With both The Western Canon published back in 1994 and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human published in 1998, I had toured extensively and found an astonishing response from the audiences I addressed and from people who talked to me and people for whom I was signing books. To this day, I am deluged with mail from people who say how desperately pleased they are to find that someone is indeed writing about literature for the common reader, that someone does not try, as it were, to do the French thing, in regard to literary study or the many ideological modes which I will not mention, which are now practiced in the Anglo-American Universities and college world.
The more I thought about the response to these two books I had written, the more I realized that neither of them had really addressed a need which I felt highly qualified and highly driven to meet. And that is, a self-help book, indeed, an inspiration book, which would not only encourage solitary readers of all kinds all over the world to go on reading for themselves, but also support them in their voyages of self-discovery through reading. [How To Read and Why is meant to] give readers a human aid to their own reading, not to tell them what to read, because to some extent I had done that in The Western Canon, but to tell them indeed how to read, and even more than how, to remind them why we have to go on reading, why indeed it's a kind of death in life if we yield completely to what William Wordsworth called the "tyranny of the bodily eye," that is to say, the tyranny of the visual at a time when we are so bombarded by information of a visual kind.
What do you think is the single greatest threat to the future of reading?
I used to believe, until fairly recently, that the greatest threat was both visual over-stimulation--television, films, computers, virtual reality, and so on--and also auditory over-stimulation, you know, what I call rock religion, MTV, rap, all of these mindless burstings of the eardrums. And, of course, I think what has happened to education on every level, from grade school through graduate school throughout the English speaking world, is an increasing menace to disinterested and passionate reading, reading not governed by ideological and other social considerations.
But more recently, I have reached the very sad conclusion that what most threatens the future of reading is the, I will not say probability--I would become very wretched indeed--but the real possibility of the disappearance of the book. I begin to fear that what it means to be alone with a book--the various ways in which you can hold a book in your own hands and turn the pages and write in the margins when you are moved to do so, underline or emphasize when you are moved to do so--might almost vanish, that the technological overkill of the latest developments we are moving towards, the e-book sort of thing which Mr. Gates and others are proclaiming might perhaps put the book in jeopardy. And I really don't think that without the book we are going to survive. You can have a technological elite without the book, but you cannot finally have a humanely educated portion of the public that is able to teach to others. As a matter of fact, I think what you will really have is the death of humane teaching, as such.
What can people get from reading that they can't from movies or television?
I would say not less than everything. You can get a great deal of information, as such, from screens of one sort or another. You can dazzle yourself with images, if that is your desire. But how you are to grow in self-knowledge, become more introspective, discover the authentic treasures of insight and of compassion and of spiritual discernment and of a deep bond to other solitary individuals, how in fact can like call out to like without reading, I do not know. I suppose if I were to put it in almost a common denominator sort of way, I would say that you cannot even begin to heal the worst aspects of solitude, which are loneliness and potential madness, by visual experience of any kind, particularly the sort of mediated visual experience that you get off a screen of whatever sort. If you are to really encounter a human otherness which finds an answering chorus in yourself, which can become an answering chorus to your own sense of inward isolation, there truly is no authentic place to turn except to a book.
You talk in the book about contemporary readers having difficulty comprehending irony in literature of earlier times. Why do you think this is a problem?
Irony by definition is the saying of one thing while meaning another, sometimes indeed quite the opposite of what overtly you are saying. It's very difficult to have the highest kind of imaginative literature from Homer through Don DeLillo, as it were, and entirely avoid irony. There is the tragic irony, which one confronts everywhere in Shakespeare, that the audience, the auditor, and the reader are aware of--something in the character or predicament or inward affects, emotions of the protagonist or protagonists, that the heroes and heroines are totally unaware of themselves.
It's very difficult to convey this quality of irony by purely visual means. Visual ironies tend to fall flat or they vulgarize very quickly or they become grotesque. Really subtle irony of any sort demands literary language. The way in which meaning tends to wander in any really interesting literary text, so that the reader is challenged to go into exile with it, catch up with it, learn how to construe it, make it her very own, is essentially a function of irony. If we totally lose our ability to recognize and to understand irony, then we will be doomed to a kind of univocal discourse, which is alright I suppose for politicians' speeches and perhaps for certain representatives of popular religion, but will leave us badly defrauded.
What books or poems have you returned to most often over the course of your life?
The primary answer has to be Shakespeare. Even if I did not teach Shakespeare all the time, I would always be re-reading Shakespeare, reciting Shakespeare to myself, brooding about the great plays. I tend personally to re-read the major lyric poets of the English language from Shakespeare's sonnets through Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. That's what most vivifies and pleases me. I re-read Jonathan Swift's A Tale of the Tub twice a year, but that's to punish myself. It is, I think, the most powerful, nonfictive prose in the English language, but it's a kind of vehement satire upon visionary projectors as it were, like myself, and so I figure it is a good tonic and corrective for me. I re-read Proust every year because In Search of Lost Time is just about my favorite novel, except maybe for Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, which I also tend to re-read every year or so. I re-read Dickens all the time, especially my peculiar favorite which I've loved since I was a child, The Pickwick Papers. I re-read Oscar Wilde nearly every day of my life, or I recite Oscar to myself, but that's a personal enthusiasm which perhaps surpasses his literary worth, very large as that indeed is. I read Dr. Samuel Johnson all the time because he is my great hero as a literary critic and I have tried to model myself upon him all my life. But this answer would be endless, since I do very little besides teach and read and write.
What is your favorite book to teach?
Oh, most certainly, Shakespeare. Teaching either the high tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, or the greatest of the comedies, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream, or what may be, I think, the finest, most representative instance of what Shakespeare can do, the two parts of King Henry IV, taken together, considered as one play, in which, of course, the central figure is my particular literary hero, Sir John Falstaff. And the so-called late romances, which are really tragi-comedies, particularly The Tempest and The Winter's Tale.
Did you have a teacher who was a particular inspiration to you?
Oh yes. I was deeply inspired and helped greatly, humanly, by three of my teachers in particular. When I was at Cornell undergraduate, I came very much under the influence and the kind guidance of M. H. Abrams, Meyer Howard Abrams, who I'm delighted to say is still alive. He's 88 years old now, one of the leading, perhaps the leading scholar of English Romantic poetry in the 20th century.
Then when I became a graduate student at Yale, I was much under the influence of Frederick A. Pottle, who was a Johnson and Boswell scholar and a Romantic scholar, and is remembered best now for writing a large two-volume definitive biography of James Boswell and for his work on the Boswell papers. He was a tremendous steadying influence upon me. I was a sort of wild young man with fierce opinions of every sort and congenitally unable to see anybody else's point of view. Mr. Pottle was sufficiently strenuous in urging a proper care upon me for the really civilized and well thought-through and valid opinions of others, not just any opinions. But I think he did me a vast amount of good.
The third person would be the late dean of Yale College, William Clyde Devane, a great Browning scholar. I was his student also, but mostly he was too busy during those 25 years, first when I was a graduate student and then when I was a younger and beginning-to-be-middle-aged person on the faculty. He was too busy running Yale College to give me much direct instruction, but he took a great interest in me, defended me against my Yale enemies, as Professor Pottle did, and I had plenty of enemies, some of whom I no doubt deserved and some of whom I didn't deserve. But he was a fountain of wisdom. He was a man of enormous worldly insight, but of still an idealistic kind, and he took the long view. Even if I never quite learned from him to take as long a view as William Clyde Devane could take, he had a strong effect upon me.
I suppose also, you know, I would say that Meyer Howard Abrams and Frederick Albert Pottle and William Clyde Devane were, in their very different way, very wise men. I say at the beginning of How to Read and Why, "information is readily available to us; where shall wisdom be found," which is an ancient Biblical question. I found wisdom in those three teachers in particular. While I'm not trying to be a guru or anything of that sort, any more than they tried to be or actually were gurus, any hard-won wisdom of my own comes primarily from what they started in me and from the deep reading of what by now must be literally hundreds of thousands of books-ingesting them, memorizing them, voluntarily and involuntarily, pondering them, always turning them over in my mind.
How did you choose which works to discuss in the book?
As I made very clear in one of the earlier sentences of the book, there is nothing prescriptive about the book. It isn't trying to tell you what to read; it is really trying to tell you how to read and why to read. It is a self-help and inspirational kind of manual, as it were. And as I say very clearly at the beginning, whether I'm dealing with any of my five categories, European novels, American novels, short stories, poetry, or plays, I can only give samples. I tried to take samples that were really in some deep way central to the experience of the reader, but that were also to some degree, varied, and above all else accessible. I wanted them to be accessible stories, accessible novels, very familiar works if possible, or familiar to many readers, if not to most or all readers. (I would have to admit that Shelley's The Triumph of Life may be a little too difficult for the purposes of the book, but I felt that by then one could try a really difficult poem on the reader.)
But it's very, very difficult to try to write such a book and keep it to about whatever this is, 285-or-so pages, and not seem to be purely arbitrary or purely personal in the books that you choose. Thus some of my friends who are poets and novelists and playwrights, though they like the book, have questioned why one writer is there rather than another, and I'm not always sure that I can give an answer that will altogether satisfy or appease them. To some extent, the choices had to be, in part, arbitrary. But I think they are all of them representative. I think they are almost all of them accessible to a reader with good will who is willing to work a little. I think that all of them are beautiful, to use a term that we should not let go of. They are all of them aesthetically rewarding to the highest degree. And I think that all of them have either a great wisdom or, quite manifestly, a great unwisdom, which teaches you a good deal also.
When I re-read the book in proof the other day, I realized that without meaning to do so, I had at one time or another, whether I was dealing with novelists, storywriters, poets, or dramatists, found myself reflecting upon and trying to say something useful about the quite palpable influence of Shakespeare upon all of these writers. And he has been, of course, in all European languages, probably with the exception of French, the inescapable influence, the inescapable presence for the last four centuries, since he is, after all, the largest and most powerful writer that we know.
In the prologue you write, "Ultimately we read in order to strengthen the self." As you have noticed, self-help books top bestseller lists. How can reading great literature provide an alternative to these manuals?
In the self-help and inspirational category, to be perfectly fair, most things that are published, or that sell widely, are really intellectually and spiritually rather thin. They don't challenge a reader in any way, and I'm afraid frequently tend to flatter a reader in preconceptions and misconceptions and easy adjustments to one's own self. So the question is, how can one possibly hope to vie with, to compete with, self-help books of that sort in presenting a book on how to read and why. I suppose pragmatically is the only answer I can give. I have tried to be as simple and clear as I either can be or can be induced to be. It is a very direct book, I think. It addresses the reader--whether he or she be young or old, whatever their background--quite intimately.
The purpose of the book, and I hope the achievement of the book, is to get in very close to a reader and try to speak directly to what it is that they either might want out of the book or might be persuaded to see: that truly, though they may not have been aware of it, this is what they want and only really first-rate imaginative literature can bring it to them. For example, they want Chekhov's short stories, because they are not only so poignant but have the uncanny faculty, rather like Shakespeare in that regard, to persuade the reader or the auditor that certain truths about himself or herself, which are totally authentic, totally real, are being demonstrated to the reader for the very first time. It's not as though Shakespeare or Chekhov has created those truths. It's just that without the assistance of Shakespeare and Chekhov, we might never be able to see what is really there.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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