Reviewing Harold Bloom’s “How to Read and Why”

Bloom, H. (2000). How to read and why. Toronto, ON: Scribner, 2000.

Reviewed by Shuana Niessen

Published in S.T.E.L.A in 2006

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why is an aesthetically pleasing, accessible book that “can be put to the use of weighing and considering.” (p. 22) Reading this book will help English Language Arts teachers develop professionally and personally.Professionally, they will discover motivations and principles for reading that will help them in setting objectives, in planning, in motivating students to read, and in choosing literature for students.Personally, Bloom’s passion for literature may re-ignite a love for reading and literature in those who have allowed academic, social, or political ideology to smother their personal enjoyment of imaginative literature. For those who already possess an ardour for literature, the book will serve to augment and expand that passion.

Bloom divides the book into genres: short story, poetry, plays, and novels. For each genre, he presents practical insights and suggestions for “how to read and why.” Within each genre, Bloom chooses literature and authors that he claims best illustrate principles of reading. Shakespeare is Bloom’s touchstone throughout the book because “he contains every principle of reading.” (p. 25) Five general principles for how to read are iterated by Bloom and useful to ELA teaching practice. First, readers must learn to overhear, to recognize what is implied, to identify what is not spoken and its significance. ELA teachers can help students become overhearers by asking good questions, and by helping the students learn to ask good questions. Second, readers must read and re-read. The first reading is for pleasure, and to find out what happens. Re-reading focuses on how and why it happens. ELA teachers can find ways to help students re-read by scaffolding the reading experience. The first read must reflect the primary reason for reading: pleasure. Third, readers should memorize poetry because of the “critical insights that possession by memorization can yield.” (p. 74) ELA teachers can incorporate memorization into their unit plans as extra marks, or oracy marks. Fourth, readers bring themselves to literature; they “misread” it. Bloom’s choice of authors illustrates this point. He traces authors in terms of their influences, and explains how their masterpieces are a misreading of their predecessor. This falls into Rosenblatt’s aesthetic reading theory. Students bring themselves to literature, and will “misread” it, but from it will gain critical insights, and new understanding. Finally, readers should follow D.H. Lawrence’s advice to “trust the tale, not the teller.” Readers must be wary of authorial designs upon them. ELA teachers need to question and help students question the reliability of a narrator, and also look for signs of an author’s moralizing tendency.

Throughout How to Read and Why, Bloom provides at least six primary reasons why we read: to alleviate loneliness, to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests, to prepare ourselves for change and the ultimate universal change, to find a mind more original than our own, and to learn to share in the one nature that Bloom calls “the reader’s Sublime.” (p. 29) With some adaptations, these primary reasons can be motivating factors for adolescent readers who, developmentally, are searching out their identity, preparing for change, and making major life decisions that require wisdom beyond their years.

The pleasures of reading are selfish, not social. According to Bloom, social, political, and ideological agendas must become secondary reasons for reading. In fact, Bloom states: “to read in the service of any ideology is not to read at all.” (p. 272) The reader is instructed to clear the mind of academic cant, defined as “pious platitudes” and “language such as ‘gender and sexuality’ and ‘multiculturalism.’” (p. 23) Further, Bloom argues that “ideology is destructive to capacity to apprehend and appreciate irony.” Irony is what causes us to weigh and consider, and the “loss of irony is the death of reading.” (p. 25) The end result of deep, constant reading is social because it develops “an autonomous self. Until you become yourself, what benefit can you be to others?” (p.195) But this is a passive result, and not an attempt to improve one’s neighbour.

Bloom’s ideas are controversial in a post-colonial, pluralistic society. Certainly, one could criticize him for his WASPish arrogance, and the assumptions behind his attachment to the literature of predominantly “dead, white men.” Even though Bloom’s strong opinions, assumptions, and attachments are controversial, there are critical insights to be gained from reading him “deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict,” (p. 29) but to “weigh and consider.” (p. 21) Besides the practical suggestions for reading various genres and authors, the pragmatic principles gained for how to read, and the motivations for reading imaginative literature, Bloom offers something more for ELA teachers to weigh and consider. To overhear Bloom is to hear his fear that reading imaginative literature may become extinct, that the collective transcendent wisdom found in the canon may not survive a technological age where visual images and highly structured computer games occupy the minds of both adults and children. Bloom fears that access to the great literature of the past will be lost because of political correctness. He fears the loss of our cultural and universal masterpieces, dropped in favour of supermarket fiction that is overpraised and canonized by universities for social purposes. (p. 196) He fears that the primary aesthetic criteria for canonizing literature will be replaced with social interests. These fears are a challenge to ELA teachers to reconsider their primary objective in choosing literature for students. I suggest adopting Bloom’s formula for reading as a primary criteria for choosing literature: “Find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and that addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time’s tyranny.” (p. 22) Does the literature come near to your students? Is it relevant? Is there something that causes deep thinking, weighing and considering? Is it ironic? Does it address readers as though they share in the readers’ Sublime? Does it respect readers’ intelligence, or spell everything out for them. To maintain and preserve the aesthetic of reading, social and ideological agendas must become secondary considerations in choosing literature for students to read, and for determining How to Read and Why.

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