The first chapter of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why is an eloquent manifesto about the importance and joy of the reading experience. Why read at all? Bloom’s answer turns on its pleasures, the knowledge it imparts, “not just of the self and others, but of the way things are” and its various other effects on the individual.
On the matter of the effects of reading literature, I find Bloom less persuasive and at times inconsistent. He claims, for example that “imaginative literature…alleviates loneliness.” I think there is very little research to support that. He claims that reading is “healing.” I assume here he means in a therapeutic sense. Yet, I know of no systematic body of knowledge that demonstrates this.
Against this background, Bloom then goes on to say: You cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.
As I understand this statement, Bloom is saying that reading cannot directly change a person’s behavior nor does it have any effect on the “public good.” How odd to juxtapose these claims next to his earlier remarks about the way reading can alleviate loneliness and is the “most healing of pleasures.”
Still this chapter in Bloom’s book is a powerful reminder of the significance of the literary reading experience. In the remaining chapters Bloom amplifies this theme by discussing specific works of literature including short stories, poems, plays, and novels. The volume is an excellent introduction to literature.
In addition to the foregoing remarks by Bloom, other selections from the first chapter follow:
Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?
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.
Literary criticism, as I have learned to understand it, ought to be experiential and pragmatic, rather than theoretical.
It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions that they continue to read for themselves.
…eventually you will read against the clock.
…formula of how to read: find what comes near you than can be put to the use of weighing and considering.
Ultimately we read…to strengthen the self and to learn its authentic interests.
The pleasures of reading indeed are selfish rather than social.
…if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others.
We read, frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own.
…recovery of the ironic might be our fifth principle for the restoration of reading. Think of the endless irony of Hamlet, who when he says one thing almost invariably means another, frequently indeed the opposite of what he says.
And yet the loss of irony is the death of reading, and of what had been civilized in our natures.
We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers because they more than enlarge life.
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 ways things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading ….is the search for a difficult pleasure.