Reading Against the Clock: Belated Bloom Suffers Nobly

How to Read and Why , by Harold Bloom. Scribner, 283 pages, $25.

Ignore the headline. The true title of this review is “How to Read Harold Bloom and Why,” and I will proceed exactly so: first the how, then the why.

Open your Bloom anywhere (there are now two dozen titles to choose from) and read slowly, out loud, until you’ve caught the tone. There are several Bloom voices and each calls for a different style of reading. Sometimes a variety of voices will sound in a single volume, but if you read for a quarter of an hour, you’ll find the dominant note. (If you’re utterly unable to get past the first page, you’ve probably stumbled on The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy , the sole work of fiction in the Bloom oeuvre , executed in 1979 and quickly forgotten.)

The tone of early Bloom is vast authority born of encyclopedic reading and superb taste. Consider the sweeping first sentence of The Visionary Company (1961), his survey of English Romantic poetry: “Blake died in the evening of Sunday, Aug. 12, 1827, and the firm belief in the autonomy of the poet’s imagination died with him.” Or this grand declaration from the second page of the same book: “Milton, after the failure of his Revolution, turned inward like Oedipus, making of his blindness a judgment upon the light.” Pick up any of Mr. Bloom’s books from the 1960′s and you meet a contentious critic with magnificent confidence in himself, who is also a brilliant teacher brimming with pertinent information and daring, if sometimes thorny, commentary. Read early Bloom with the eager attention of a curious student.

Self-confident is different from self-loving, which is Mr. Bloom’s tone in the 70′s. At the dawn of that decade, early Bloom evidently caught a glimpse of Bloom in bloom, fell in love and called upon his readers to join him in self-worship. The critic became a prophet, the teacher a proselytizer. This is the decade of The Anxiety of Influence (1973), the Bloomian scripture in which he discovers the origin of poetry and traces its progress (he would say decline) from poet to poet in an ongoing psychic wrestling match the rest of us call poetic tradition. You recognize a new mode when the author refers to his own theory as “dark and daemonic.” But Bloom in love is still a formidable critic, and when he cuts through the fog of self-regard to focus on a specific poet or poem, the result is almost always luminous. Read the books from this period with caution and amazement (if you can read them at all, as they’re willfully difficult). Watch for flights of fancy prose decorated with intimidating Greek terms. And note with a twinge of nostalgia that this was perhaps the last moment a sentient American academic could admire himself so brazenly.

After Bloom in love comes Bloom abroad, a literary critic grazing in neighboring pastures. His disastrous flirtation with fiction was just the beginning: In the 80′s he also fiddled with Gnosticism and the cabala, then spilled over into biblical scholarship with The Book of J (1990), his first best seller, in which he argues that his favorite parts of the Pentateuch were written by a woman. Practice a pose of amused detachment before reading any Bloom that promises new discoveries about sacred texts and heretic cults. Keep an eye out for studied outrageousness, as, for example, when he refers to the God of the Hebrew scriptures as “an imp who behaves sometimes as though he is rebelling against his Jewish mother.”

Bestsellerdom is addictive. With the success of The Book of J , it was inevitable that we’d get Bloom the power-hitter swinging for the fences. And sure enough, in 1994, he wheeled out The Western Canon . Oddly, though, the tone is not triumphant; no–in the 90′s we hear the querulous voice of Bloom besieged, a lone champion of aesthetic value lashing out against “our current squalors.” If you come across a reference to “the rabblement of lemmings” (a category that includes Marxists and feminists and anyone else who reads ideologically), get ready to skim over many patches of screechy diatribe. Slow down and be grateful whenever he returns to the business of commenting on and evaluating literature.

These days, Mr. Bloom has nearly forgotten his ideological opponents. A new and more formidable enemy threatens: time itself. In How to Read and Why , we meet belated Bloom, who is now “going on 70″ and keenly aware of reading “against the clock.” Weary sighs punctuate the whole of the Bloom oeuvre (his pal John Hollander once called The Anxiety of Influence “an anatomy of critical melancholy”), but now the note of noble suffering is a constant refrain. He writes: “I ponder the letters that I receive from strangers these last seven or eight years, and generally I am too moved to reply.” He recommends Proust–”We read novels (the greater ones) to treat ourselves for dark inertia, the sickness-unto-death. Our despair requires consolation, and the medicine of a profound narration.” Laughter is essential when you read belated Bloom–without it, you would drown in bathos.

How to Read and Why is not just belated Bloom, much of it is recycled Bloom–bits clipped from earlier books and essays, simplified and sugarcoated with encouragement. The new book is divided into sections on short stories, poems, novels and plays, and reads like an eclectic syllabus annotated with brief commentary. Mr. Bloom explains that he is not offering “a list of what to read” (he already did that in The Western Canon ), “but rather … a sampling of works that best illustrate why to read.” So, for example, he presents in 34 pages the three plays he has plucked from the world’s library: Hamlet , Hedda Gabler and The Importance of Being Earnest . He scrolls through some 20 short stories in 36 pages. Proust in six pages? Remember, we’re reading against the clock: “One measures old age by its deepening of Proust, and its deepening by Proust.”

In the prologue of the new book he distills five principles to help put us on the right track (he assumes that we’re already on the wrong one, misdirected by an ideologically charged university education). “Clear your mind of cant” is his first principle, and the rest follow suit, urging self-reliance, creativity and (bless him) “recovery of the ironic.” (This last principle brings Mr. Bloom “close to despair,” for he knows that one cannot “teach someone to be ironic.”)

“Ultimately we read,” Mr. Bloom insists, “to strengthen the self.” He writes, “I myself believe that poetry is the only “self-help” that works, because reciting [D.H. Lawrence's] ‘Shadows’ aloud strengthens my own spirit.” The practical advice he offers on how to access this “self-help” is comically lame: not just “read aloud” and “read slowly,” but also “read closely” and “memorize” and “read deeply.” How could it be otherwise? Mr. Bloom may be a great teacher, but he can’t teach anyone to read deeply any more than he can teach anyone to be ironic.

Belated Bloom is a heavy-hearted cheerleader. Read How to Read and Why with a sigh of relief: It’s not as long-winded as its wacky sibling The Western Canon or its wackier, even more long-winded cousin, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998).

Why read Bloom? Because Bloom at his best, when you watch over his shoulder as he makes meaning out of the lines of a poem, is a wizard. Because even bad Bloom trails sparks of brilliance. Because he does insist, in a world where judging by taste is shunned as invidious, on the importance of aesthetic choice. And because his trademark mantra about how to read, “There is no method except yourself”–a mantra he was repeating to his students decades before the word “best seller” ever flashed through his outsize brain–is a bold liberation from the airless squeeze of the classroom and a thrilling challenge to any reader who yearns to make the self stronger.