The late Harold Bloom, literary critic and professor, may well have been one of the most prolific readers of all time. Given that, Bloom was uniquely well positioned to answer the question of why we should read and how we should go about it.
According to legend, Bloom could read a 400-page book in an hour without sacrificing comprehension and could recite the whole of Shakespeare’s poetry by heart. He was also a prodigious writer, producing over fifty books during his lifetime, as well as editing hundreds of anthologies.
In How to Read and Why, Bloom dispenses wisdom for the avid reader. In this article, we’ll share some of the most striking advice from the book on… well, how to read and why.
The most healing of pleasures
“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.”
The value of irony
“Irony demands a certain attention span and the ability to sustain antithetical ideas, even when they collide with one another. Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise. Find now what comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering, and it will very likely be irony, even if many of your teachers will not know what it is, or where it is to be found.”
“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to 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.
. . . I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.”
Chapter 1: Short Stories
How to read short stories
“Short stories favor the tacit; they compel the reader to be active, and to discern explanations that the writer avoids. The reader, as I have said before, must slow down, quite deliberately, and start listening with the inner ear. Such listening overhears the characters, as well as hearing them; think of them as your characters, and wonder at what is implied, rather than told about them. Unlike most figures in novels, their foregrounding and postgrounding are largely up to you, utilizing the hints subtly provided by the writer.”
Chapter 2: Poems
How to read poems
“. . . Wherever possible, memorize them. . . . Silent intensive rereadings of a shorter poem that truly finds you should be followed by recitations to yourself until you discover that you are in possession of the poem. . . . Committed to memory, the poem will possess you, and you will be able to read it more closely, which great poetry demands and rewards.”
Why read poetry?
“Only rarely can poetry aid us in communicating with others; that is beautiful idealism, except at certain strange moments, like the instant of falling in love. Solitude is the more frequent mark of our condition; how shall we people that solitude? Poems can help us to speak to ourselves more clearly and more fully, and to overhear that speaking. . . . We speak to an otherness in ourselves, or to what may be best and oldest in ourselves. We read to find ourselves, more fully and more strange than otherwise we could hope.”
Chapter 3: Novels, Part 1
The difference between novels and poetry
“In some respects, reading a novel ought not to differ much from reading Shakespeare or reading a lyric poem. What matters most is who you are, since you cannot evade bringing yourself to the act of reading. Because most of us also bring definite expectations, a difference enters with the novel, where we think to encounter, if not our friends and ourselves, then a recognizable social reality, whether contemporary or historical.
. . . Novels require more readers than poems do, a statement so odd that it puzzles me, even as I agree with it. Tennyson, Browning, and Robert Frost had large audiences, but perhaps did not need them. Dickens and Tolstoy had vast readerships, and needed them; multitudes of overhearers are built into their art. How do you read a novel differently if you suspect you are one of a dwindling elite rather than the representative of a great multitude?”
Why read Don Quixote?
“Reading Don Quixote is an endless pleasure, and I hope I have indicated some aspects of how to read it. We are, many of us, Cervantine figures, mixed blends of the Quixotic and the Panzaesque. . . . It remains the best as well as the first of all novels, just as Shakespeare remains the best of all dramatists. There are parts of yourself you will not know fully until you know, as well as you can, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.”
How to read Great Expectations
“With the deepest elements in one’s own fears, hopes, and affections: to read as if one could be a child again. Dickens invites you to do so, and makes it possible for you; that may be his greatest gift. Great Expectations does not take us into the Sublime, as Shakespeare and Cervantes do. It wants to return us to origins, painful and guilty as perhaps they must be. The novel’s appeal to our childlike need for love, and recovery of the self, is nearly irresistible. The “why” of reading it is then self-evident: to go home again, to heal our pain.”
A question to ask of great novels
“Do the principal characters change and, if they do, what causes them to change?”
Again, why read?
“The ultimate answer to the question “Why read?” is that only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self. Until you become yourself, what benefit can you be to others?”
Chapter 4: Plays
Why read Hamlet?
“Because, by now, this play makes us an offer we cannot refuse. It has become our tradition, and the word our there is enormously inclusive. Prince Hamlet is the intellectual’s intellectual: the nobility, and the disaster, of Western consciousness. Now Hamlet has also become the representation of intelligence itself, and that is neither Western nor Eastern, male nor female, black nor white, but merely the human at its best, because Shakespeare is the first truly multicultural writer.”
How to read Shakespeare
“Reading Shakespeare’s plays, you learn to meditate upon what is left out. That is one of the many advantages that a reader has over a theatergoer in regard to Shakespeare. Ideally, one should read a Shakespeare play, watch a good performance of it, and then read it again. Shakespeare himself, directing his play at the Globe, must have experienced discomfort at how much a performance had to neglect, though we have no evidence of this. However instructed by Shakespeare, it is difficult to imagine the actor Richard Burbage catching and conveying all of Hamlet’s ironies, or the clown Will Kemp encompassing the full range of Falstaff’s wit in the Henry IV plays.”
At FS, we often talk about the benefits of reading as a way of learning from the experiences of others and avoiding mistakes. But, as Bloom shows us, the benefits are not just about becoming smarter and more productive.
Reading can help us alleviate loneliness and get to know more people on an intimate level than we could otherwise. It can provide greater self-knowledge, as the words of others give us a lens for understanding ourselves. As a “difficult pleasure,” the ways in which books challenge us help us to grow. Wrestling with a text teaches us a great deal about our capabilities and our values. There is also immense satisfaction and increased confidence when we conquer it. Reading helps you to become your full, autonomous self.
We can also learn from Bloom that there is much value in paying attention to how you approach different types of writing. No one approach works all of the time. Short stories require the ability to pick up on clues as to what isn’t included. Poetry is more illuminating if memorized. The way we experience novels has a lot to do with who we are and our perception of its popularity. And plays teach us how much more there is going on beneath the surface of what we see.
One last time: why read?
“Because you will be haunted by great visions: of Ishmael, escaped alone to tell us; of Oedipa Mass, cradling the old derelict in her arms; of Invisible Man, preparing to come up again; like Jonah, out of the whale’s belly. All of them, on some of the higher frequencies, speak to and for you.”