How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom
Ironically books like this are written to help inexperienced readers figure out not only how to read but what to read, but readers get frustrated reading about books they don’t know. So it’s nice to be an old and experienced reader who’s read just about everything Bloom talks about. In my case, the book was a reminder of past great reading experiences, a guide for what to read and reread in the future, but also a chance to pause and think about great books as a whole tradition and to listen to ideas about how great writers influence the greats that follow them and ideas about integrating whole bodies of writing around common ideas human beings have about their lives on this earth.
Some book group members found Bloom an old windbag, but I’ve found that those accused of windbaggery are usually those with large and integrating ideas, the kind I gravitate toward. Bloom has a whole book on how Shakespeare defines what it means to be human. I’d already concluded, having read half his book, that it was time to reread at least some of Shakespeare if only so that I could experience some of those overarching ideas Blooms finds there. I liked his idea that a main thrust of literature in English has been where the main character advances by overhearing himself or herself—the ultimate is of course Hamlet, but it’s very clear that Emma and Dorothea Brooke and Jane Eyre grow that way too. I was also more than a little intrigued by the strain not only of self reliance but of violence he saw in American literature. The novels he picked out to discuss were some favorites (Moby Dick which I never doubted was the defining American novel and Blood Meridian which I absolutely could not walk away from as upsetting as I found the violence) and some I need to reread and think more about (As I Lay Dying and Miss Lonelyhearts). My favorite Faulkner has always been Absolam, Absolam! And my least favorite of the “greats” was As I Lay Dying which I have not reread since college.
I knew, as Bloom remarks, that Faulkner wished he’d written Moby Dick, but I hadn’t thought of Thomas Sutpen in Absolam as Faulkner’s Ahab and that insight may be the most perceptive crumb Bloom has left for me.