Weekly Wire
NewCityNet In Bloom

By Ben Winters

JUNE 26, 2000: 

How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom (Scribner), $25, 283 pages

Of the two directives posed in Harold Bloom's new title, "How to Read and Why," an explanation is offered for the second one right away, in the first paragraph of the prologue: "One of the uses of reading is to prepare ourselves for change, and the final change alas is universal."

In the whole book I found no sentence as interesting as that one. What Bloom is suggesting--that reading has among its rewards a greater understanding of the human condition, of which death is the ultimate conditional--is by no means an original proposition, but there is something profound and beautiful in aligning joy in literature so closely with terror of the great beyond. A worthy book, like a worthy painting or a worthy play, isn't a distraction from the ultimate questions, it is a reflection of them: Literature is a journey from Dickens' "Whether I am to be the hero of my own life... ," to Shakespeare's "To be or not to be... " Reading is not a diversion, is the urging of Bloom's book: It is a life's work.

The title/mission statement is actually a bit facetious; it's not a volume to be picked up when toying with the idea of reading, maybe when deciding between "How to Read and Why" and "How to Build Model Trains and Why." It is more a potpourri of literary boosterism. The antithesis of Roger Ebert's new "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie," Bloom's book trades exclusively in books and authors he loves, love, loves.

Bloom's favorite's range from the givens--Shakespeare, Cervantes, Wordsworth--to some quirkier selections, like Tommaso Landolfi and Cormac McCarthy. I disagree with some of the included authors (I've tried to be hip, but Italo Calvino continues to annoy me) and some of the omissions (Hello? James Joyce?), but what the hell. I'm happy to let Bloom prepare for death with a different set of mentors than me.

But if I'm surprised by the choices, I'm frustrated (along with legions of Bloom critics) by his continued smug dismissal of whole schools of thought. Perhaps a lifetime of scholarship has earned Bloom the right to refer to multiculturalism and women's studies as "covens," and to assert when discussing irony that most professors "will not know what it is, or where it is to be found." As much as these asides might dampen our enjoyment, "How to Read" is still an enriching experience, a place to learn something, have a pleasant experience or two, occasionally get irritated. How like life.

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