How to Read and Why
BY HAROLD BLOOM
Scribner; 290 pages; $25
The Browser’s Ecstasy
BY GEOFFREY O’BRIEN
Counterpoint; 160 pages; $23
The title of Harold Bloom’s new guide to literature and life may sound off-puttingly smug and condescending, but it’s not until you get into How to Read and Why that you realize just how off-puttingly smug and condescending the book really is. Unfortunately, of the two book-length meditations about reading and literature that are being published this month – the other is Geoffrey O’Brien’s strangely beautiful The Browser’s Ecstasy – Bloom’s book is likely to get all the attention. In 1998, Bloom, the prolific Yale and NYU professor, pulled off a rare publishing trick: His dense scholarly study Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human became a national best-seller and earned him a National Book Award nomination. I don’t know whether it’s true, as I’ve heard, that Bloom stormed out of the awards ceremony when Shakespeare didn’t win, but pretty much everything about his pompous new book suggests that he might well have.
How to Read and Why claims to be a practical guide that can show us not only how to read great literature, but why it’s worth skipping the Masterpiece Theatre versions for the books themselves in the first place – why, as Bloom sees it, the very act of reading makes us, in the end, more fully human. (Bloom thinks you get more out of Hamlet by reading the play than by seeing it performed.) That’s a worthy project: A gentle, detailed, careful guide through the complexities and nuances of Proust or Cervantes or Emily Dickinson, pitched to the general reader and blessedly free of academic jargon, would win over a lot of readers (just as the Shakespeare book did). Ironic, then, that nearly every pedantic page of this show-offy exercise demonstrates why so many people think the “Great Books” are too fancy and obscure to bother with in the first place.
How to Read and Why starts off promisingly, with a (none-too-fashionable) declaration that reading is a “selfish” rather than a “social” pleasure that ultimately functions to “strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests.” The author has little time for current trends in university teaching – the “covens” of academic critics who see great works of literature as vehicles for promoting awareness of “gender and sexuality,” say, or “multiculturalism.” (In his preface, Bloom disingenuously claims to be uninterested in polemics, but this is bunk: His book is filled with welcome swipes at “campus Puritans” and their humorless colleagues who teach “appreciation of Victorian women’s underwear” instead of Dickens and Browning.) Bloom’s book is organized as a series of brief analyses of various literary works – short stories, poems, novels, and plays, everything from Chekhov to Dickinson to Wilde to Thomas Pynchon – that are meant to illustrate the “selfish” and self-revealing pleasure to be had from great texts.
By “selfish,” Bloom doesn’t mean frivolous or even painless. For him, it’s precisely the difficulty of great texts like King Lear (“never an easy pleasure”) that makes them worth reading; wrestling with their “otherness” builds up our intellectual and critical muscles, thereby enhancing our “capacity to form our own judgments and opinions.” For this reason, reading is inherently humanizing in a way that, say, watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or fiddling with the latest version of Myst is not. Or, as Bloom puts it, “A childhood largely spent watching television yields to an adolescence with a computer, and the university receives a student unlikely to welcome the suggestion that we must endure our going hence even as our going hither: ripeness is all.”
Aye, as Bloom’s favorite author might say, there’s the rub. As it happens, I admire Bloom’s project, and couldn’t be more sympathetic either to his championing of “selfish” reading as a vehicle for self-realization or to his disdain for the humorless, black-clad theorists who are instilling in undergraduates everywhere a reductive, poisonous disdain for literary works. But Professor Bloom’s own rhetoric is so poisonously alienating to the general reader – with its mandarin locutions and tireless self-congratulation – that he ends up sounding like a parody of the jargon-spouting Neo-post-whatever-ists he keeps complaining about. At one point, the author, hand to forehead, bemoans the lost pleasure of youthful first readings, when books were a “Hazlittian gusto.” Hmmm. There wasn’t a lot of Hazlittian gusto on Long Island when I was growing up.
The subject of this book often seems, indeed, to be Bloom himself. Even if you manage to hack your way through the thickets of “Yahwistic signs” and “heterocosms,” thorny with unexplained references to sparagmos, sprezzatura, and praxis, let’s face it: You’re never going to catch up to the professor, who, as he keeps reminding you, was far more brilliant than you’ll ever be – before he hit puberty! Bloom isn’t shy about telling you that he knew Housman and Blake by heart at the age of 8, has been reading Moby-Dick since he was 9, and has been citing the rabbinical Sayings of the Fathers – in Hebrew, you certainly hope – “for almost all the years of my life.” It’s not that you disbelieve him, or indeed that there’s anything wrong with being so precocious; it’s just that you’d probably feel reluctant to take a World Lit course from someone who obviously has so little sympathy for those of us who don’t read The Pickwick Papers twice a year, as he used to (“wearing out several copies in the process”). There’s a telling moment early on in How to Read and Why when Bloom wearily boasts that he’s not as patient a teacher as he used to be; and a gruff, exhausted impatience – with the state of reading, with readers who aren’t up to his standards, and even with his readers – manifests itself throughout his book.
The embarrassing self-congratulation would be easier to take if, in the end, the author provided you with some substantive revelation about literature; but Bloom, who you suspect thinks of himself as a kind of Lear of the professoriat, is clearly too wearied by his battles with the Gonerils of poststructuralism and the Regans of feminist theory to tell you anything much, apart from the platitudinous mantra that “we read to find ourselves.” Of course, there are flashes of the magisterial literary insight that made the Shakespeare book so absorbing. When Bloom actually focuses on literature instead of himself – when he divides all short stories into the realistic, Chekhovian mode and the fantastical, Borgesian; when, in classifying all novels as either Cervantine (outward, questing) or Shakespearian (consciousness-obsessed, what Bloom calls “self-overhearing”), he improbably but brilliantly describes Flaubert’s Emma Bovary as a Don Quixote figure – you applaud his energy and originality (and agree with him). And he can be funny: Poe’s short stories, he declares, “benefit by translation, even into English.”
But in the end, Bloom’s analyses are skimpy; you often feel as if he’s muttering favorite lines to himself (“ripeness is all”) instead of talking to you. He doesn’t take the time to do what every good teacher has to do, which is to show you how (or why) the works he talks about are great; instead, he expects you to believe they’re great because he, Harold Bloom, says they’re great. “Why read Don Quixote?” he asks, at the conclusion of a typically haphazard discussion that manages to be as much about Shakespeare as it is about Cervantes. Well, because Don Quixote “remains the best as well as the first of all novels.” That slipshod circularity, typical of this careless little book, betrays the author’s impatient disdain for his readers. Loving your subject matter, as Bloom undeniably does, is only half of being a great teacher (and this book’s aim is clearly pedagogical); you have to love your students too.
Love – love for reading, for books, for readers, for readers of his book – shimmers off nearly every page of Geoffrey O’Brien’s idiosyncratic prose poem about the joys of reading. The Browser’s Ecstasy has the hallucinatory beauty of a fable, or a dream: It’s difficult, and elliptical, and there are moments when the whole assemblage of very short chapters, with their haikulike titles (“A Little Treatise on Ways of Reading,” “The Book That Read Itself”), can leave you scratching your head, the way some poems do. (O’Brien is a poet as well as a critic.) But O’Brien’s observations have the unexpected concreteness of poetry, too – at one point, a reader notices “the swelling curve of an assertion” in a text – and they make you think. “Once a book exists,” he writes, “it takes its place indistinguishably among the writings of the dead.” Yes.
The book takes the form of a parable. A group of people assemble to talk about books; a Stranger appears; he tells a long story that may or may not be a fable about literacy at the beginning of the Information Age (“The archive of clay will outlive the archive of bytes”); the story culminates in a lengthy summary of a (fictional) novel that manages to be a parody of every novel ever written (it starts in France in 1780 and ends in today’s New York, and everyone is – deliciously – everyone else’s ancestor or descendant) and a hymn to the hypnotic powers of literature that’s a more persuasive recommendation to read than the whole of Bloom’s book. “An infinitely wide scope in an infinitely narrow compass” is how O’Brien describes what a book is. A perfect description, as it happens, of his own.