I’m giving away a copy of How to Read and Why to someone joining my personal challenge. Read my discussion of the preface for more information.
This is a very long post; I’m breaking my own rules of length because I spent a long time reading and pondering Bloom’s prologue, and I have a lot of thoughts about it. I’ve included a summary at the end under “How Should I Read?” if you don’t care to read all of my post. However, I hope it may be a “difficult pleasure” to read the entire post.
So Many Books, So Little Time
Harold Bloom begins his prologue to How to Read and Why by asking simply, “Why read?” He points out that:
You can read merely to pass the time, or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock. (page 21)
This just reiterates what I’ve always known: there are so many books, and there is so little time.
Why Read Fiction?
Bloom argues that we all should have urgency about us when reading and we should determine why it is that we read. For himself, he claims,
I turn to reading as a solitary praxis, rather than as an educational enterprise. (page 21)
At the same time, he confesses that the best reading is “never an easy pleasure.” So why do we or should we read in our solitary time? He explores this question while also exploring five principles of reading fiction. Bloom argues that when we accept these principles, reading in that solitary time is more enjoyable and fulfilling.
Clear your mind of cant. … [C]ant in this sense is speech overflowing with pious platitudes, the peculiar vocabulary of a sect or coven. (page 23)
In other words, don’t read with a specific ideology in mind. Finding support of ideology should not be the point of reading fiction. I find it hard sometimes when I know a novel is about a certain perspective. But Bloom’s counsel is wise: how can I let the novel speak to me if I am busy searching and taking notes on the sought after issues? Better to let the situation speak to me through the story. In after fact, I can find themes that stand out to me personally, not those that are dictated by society.
Bloom later emphasizes:
To read human sentiments in human language you must be able to read humanly, with all of you. You are more than an ideology whatever your convictions …(page 28)
I like Bloom’s emphasis that reading is not and should not be ideological but rather personal, human. So there, college English professors!
Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read. Self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit: there are no ethics of reading. (page 24)
I can’t lecture others via a book; a book that changes me might not change someone else.
I think that just about summarizes why I hesitate to give book recommendations; people either think I’m crazy because they hated it or completely agree with me as to a book’s merit. I can never predict.
A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light. … You need not fear that the freedom of your development as a reader is selfish, because if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others. (page 24)
Oh, I love this concept! Bloom is suggesting that if I read authentically and sincerely and I love it, others will be inspired by me. Giving what I read to others might not inspire them, but if I was inspired, my sincerity might be inspiring to those around me. Thank you, Mr. Bloom, for inspiring me to read more!
And yet, lest I get too excited, he does counsel:
The pleasures of reading indeed are selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply. (page 22)
With those words, I must remember that reading to inspire won’t work, but reading for myself is what reading is all about. Reading is by nature solitary and, by default, reading will help me alone.
One must be an inventor to read well. … We read, frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own. (page 25)
I think that just perfectly summarizes why I read. I think others are so much more original; and yet, I find myself in their creative worlds of words.
[We read for] recovery of the ironic … (page 25)
This threw me off at first: what does he mean by irony? He means simple metaphor.
Irony, noun. 2 a: the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c: an ironic expression or utterance (definition courtesy merriam-webster.com)
Bloom’s following pages discussing irony made me want to pick up the nearest novel and get back to the world of irony. I love the fact that we live in a world where things don’t always have to be literal. We say one thing but mean another. Such irony is one reason why we read novels: to escape to a world of metaphor and make-believe.
Irony demands a certain attention span, and the ability to suspend antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise.
Reading Bloom’s explanation of irony, I fell in love with reading all over again.
How Should I Read?
I love Bloom’s concepts for reading (interpreted and reworded by me):
- Reading should be done without ideology in mind
- Reading that inspires me might not inspire you
- I can’t change anyone else by reading, but I might inspire someone
- Reading invents new worlds of more creativity in the reader
- I should read to be not literal (ironic)
Bloom writes many quotable things; I could just quote the entire prologue. If you have this book, read the prologue with a pencil in hand.
He writes about why we should read and how we should approach it: personally and humanly, not as a student at a university. That is a censure for me, since I was thinking I’d approach his book and the recommended works as university texts. His point is that we shouldn’t read for that kind of reason.
He quotes Sir Francis Bacon:
Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. (page 21)
And then he “weighs in” himself:
We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure. (page 28-29; emphasis added)
“The search for a difficult pleasure.” I love that phrase because it so accurately captures the challenge of reading a good book. Sometimes reading is painful, and I’ve read some books recently that have been hard to read and yet beautiful at the same time.
Bloom claims “we certainly owe mediocrity nothing,” something he realizes now that the clock is winding down on his life. What have I read recently that has been mediocre, and why did I read it?
Ultimately, why should we read? Here’s part of Bloom’s final answer:
Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads. (page 29)
Why do you read? What is reading well?