How To Read & Why by Harold Bloom (Preface)

I like to read. I’ve decided it’s time I learn how to read.

I don’t know when I first figured out how to read the written word, but I’ve always been a reader. When I was young, I’d ride my bicycle to the library and return home with my backpack full of books. I’d devour each one and then return to the library for my next batch. I was a compulsive page-turner, finishing a book so I could read the next. Once I entered high school and then college, my “compulsive” reading slowed to only “assigned” reading. I was trying to pass my classes. I did well, and I graduated. It’s been a few years since school. Last year, I realized I was back to my schoolgirl habit: “page-turning,” not reading.

I realized I wasn’t really ingesting the books I read. How can I really “read” a book, even fiction, to get something out of it?

Enter: How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom. HTR&W is a very opinionated “guide” to reading. I’ve already read parts of it, but I’ve decided to slow down, reread it, and internalize it: a challenge to myself to learn to read all over again by reviewing Bloom’s selection of “examples and instances.”

Bloom says in the preface:

This book teaches how to read and why, proceeding by a multitude of examples and instances: poems short and long; stories and novels and plays. The selections [in this book] should not be interpreted as an exhaustive list of what to read, but rather as a sampling of works that illustrate why to read. (emphasis added)

He discusses each work on his list in just a page or two, discussing what makes it good, what he does to improve his reading of it, and why he considers it a work worth reading. I’m not exactly sure what he says about each work because I haven’t read his book yet! But I intend to analyze just what he’s saying and try to apply it to my own reading of these same works.

Bloom began his preface by saying:

There is no single way to read well, though there is a prime reason why we should read. Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?

He suggests that we each read for ourselves, and therefore there is no “correct” way to read. However, since we’re all still searching for ourselves, he suggests we could use some guidance when we approach literature so we can get the “deepest and wildest” pleasures from reading. I like that idea.

While he’s obviously going to spend the entire book discussing why and what to read and how to approach it, I love what he says in the preface about reading:

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.

Exactly.

I’m going to read Bloom’s list of works (stories, poems, novels, and plays) along with his book discussing them. I’m going to treat HTR&W like a textbook and Bloom’s narration as a teacher’s voice: I won’t always agree with him and he’s opinionated, but I will hopefully learn something by the end. I’m sure, as in all reading lists, I won’t agree with his judgment of excellence of all of these works, and there is something conceited about his attitude that I can and should learn to read in the ways he suggests. But no matter: I look forward to learning how to make my reading a more personal experience.

I hereby give myself a personal challenge to read all of the works on the How to Read and Why list.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I think I left my first comment on the wrong post, so I’ll just put one here too. I’m in for the book drawing, and for the challenge 🙂

  2. @Kim: I’ll put you in. @Care aka bkclubcare: I’m personally going in order and I don’t have a time limit. I’m considering making it more structured for a “blogging-wide challenge” but don’t know yet. I’ll put you in the drawing for the book!

  3. I’m probably too late for the drawing, but I am DEFINITELY going to get the book. And, knowing my compulsive reading habits, I will then devote myself to reading everything on his list.

  4. @Rose City Reader: I’ll draw a name next weekend; I extended it because my next post (weekly geeks) was about challenges. I’m glad the list grabbed your attention.

  5. I’m definitely interested (my inner literary bookworm is jumping up and down yelling “YES” and my inner literary mystery bookworm, who has been neglected this year, is crying) but will have to think about it. Very tempting, if only because the 1% challenge would be increased to 2% if I took this on, and I see Proust..and Shakespeare…..I’ll let you know as soon as I can. It’s a very interesting challenge, and you have set it up in a fun way…..it’s just that ‘so many books, so little time’ challenge we all have! I love what Bloom says about reading being healing 🙂

  6. @Susan: Yes, it’s hard to turn down a list of books…until you see your own list of books to read! I’ll enter you in the drawing for the book
    @Susan L.: I’ll enter you…and I’ll go check out your blog!

  7. Count me in. I’m trying hard to resist joining challenges because I read so much by whim, but since this one doesn’t have a time limit it doesn’t matter how long it takes me. Bloom’s book sounds very interesting. Thanks for hosting.

  8. I love Harold Bloom, but I haven’t read him since grad school – and I’ve never read this book. I’m in on this contest! Thanks so much for posting it and thanks to Care’s Online Book Club for pointing me in that direction!

  9. @Literate Housewife: I’m glad you’re intrigued! Sorry the giveaway is over, but I’m going to be reading the works on the list for a long while, so I’m glad you’re joining along.

  10. I got the book in the mail this week, so I’ll be ready to rock and roll with this challenge. I also just recently bought a Flannery O’Connor collection, so I’ll probably start there. I’m excited. It should be like taking a self-directed class. 🙂

  11. @Literate Housewife: Oh good! I love O’Connor! I also have her story collection, just waiting for me to get there! (I’m kind of going in Bloom’s order still.)

  12. Karen, Oh but I don’t. I really appreciated his prologue and preface and introduction. But you’ll notice in my progression through this project that I’m becoming more and more annoyed with him. But I’m still going to read the works on his list — it’s a good list. I’m just finishing Nabokov’s stories right now.

  13. In response to Karen, I know of Harold Bloom from my English literature classes in college and grad school.  He’s considered as one of the greatest living literary critics.  He wrote a book called The Western Cannon that is taught almost as a bible of Western literature.  I’ve not gotten as far into the book as Rebecca, but this book is less directed toward academia as The Western Cannon.

  14. Yes, literate housewife, I agree. I was going with perceived expertise, I guess.

    I see Karen’s point that is there are lots of professors out there: why did I choose Harold Bloom? I mostly chose him because I haven’t read enough others to know any others. I came across the book, liked his thoughts in the beginning, and wanted to read the books he recommends. I’m finding most of HTR&W to be a bit too personal rather than practical (i.e., why it’s good for him, not why it could be good for me), but the list is still good..

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