HTR&W Prologue: Why Read?

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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.

Principle One

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!

Principle Two

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.

Principle Three

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.

Principle Four

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.

Principle Five

[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

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?

Other Thoughts:

Reviewed on June 26, 2008

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.

  • I found this post very interesting! As to why I read…I think it depends. Sometimes, I read for comfort. Other times, I read to expand my horizons. Or because I want a challenge. Or just to revel in the beauty of the written word. Or to learn how to do something new (for me, this is mainly cookbooks and more recently sewing books). Lots of reasons!

    One of my professors told me I was the best reader he had ever met, which certainly made me feel good. But I’m not sure why he decided that, or how to read well. I suppose I’d say reading well is reading attentively: you have to be involved with the book. I think mindfulness is the best word; I know sometimes, when I’m really tired or thinking other things, I read mindlessly, and I can barely remember what was on a page after I turned it. That’s bad reading. But mindful reading: looking at how the author supports his/her ideas, or develops the characters, or keeps the plot going, or any other aspect of fiction or nonfiction as the case may be-that’s what makes someone a good reader. I also think the more people read, the better readers they become, because they have more to compare to, a richer past being brought to the book.

    Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough! I’ve been hesitant about Harold Bloom, because I’ve seen a couple interviews and he comes across as a bit of an ass. But maybe I’ll have to look into him anyway. πŸ™‚

  • I agree that reading is a selfish activity. Primarily, I do it to be entertained. Learning something is a side benefit. As for reading against the clock, I’ve learned to not try to read everything because some of it isn’t even worth my time. If it’s bad writing and there is no other compelling reason for me to finish it, I’ll put the book down.

  • @Eva: I can see how people might think that about Harold Bloom. He’s very opinionated and speaks as one with authority. However, I know he’s incredibly well-read, and so I’m using his reading list and opinions as a base. So far, I liked what he had to say in his prologue!
    @sya: it surprised me at first to think of reading as “selfish,” but it really is true. I agree, no point in reading mediocrity!

  • Excellent, this sounds like a fun challenge! I’ll have to get a copy of HTR&W. The timeframe will just have to be flexible, since the short stories and poems shouldn’t take too long, but the novels will be a challenge. Are you going to read the work, and then Bloom’s thoughts on it, or Bloom first and then the piece?

  • @Kim: I think I’ll read Bloom’s thoughts before and after, but we’ll see. I’ve read some of his book but I’m going back and starting again.

    I’m starting on the short stories this week. One reason I don’t want a time frame for myself is because I do want to put some other works in my reading list too! I like variety

  • This is a really cool idea — to read Bloom sort of as a guide during your reading journey, referring back to him as you go? I might do that, but I think I want to read him through first, too, just out of curiosity.

    Can’t add much to the rest of this, because I’m battling the same questions. I don’t at the moment have any answers to “Why Read?” beyond, “Because I’m curious.”

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