How to Read

How To Read and Why

by Harold Bloom 

by Kenny Brechner  

    If there is a  profitable way or a good reason to read Harold Bloom's new book, How to Read and Why, I was not able to discover it.   This failure, which one might think galling considering Bloom's eminence, is at least partially explained by one of Bloom's four principles of what we require if "we are to restore the way we read now." His second principle is, Ado not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read."

    Sound advice, but what is one to do with the towering irony that therefore confronts the reader, namely that How to Read and Why was expressly written to "attempt to improve your what or how you read."   An explanation is not long in coming to the puzzled reader however. For Bloom goes on to "suggest that recovery of the ironic might be our fifth principle for the restoration of reading." Well all right then.

    The body of Bloom's book is comprised of a series of topically organized sketches of books "which best illustrate why to read." These sketches have been specially designed by Bloom to edify the reader, "because it seems that until we become wholly ourselves, some advice about reading may be helpful, even perhaps essential."

    Perhaps, but the reader wading through this series of prosaic, self complacent monologues, cannot hope so. In fact, if the torpid condescension which fills How to Read and Why's pages is the mark of someone who has "become wholly" himself, one feels a growing conviction that a more partial degree of self realization might be more the thing.

    Bloom is of course an eminent scholar, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, Berg Professor of English at NYU, to start with. If his portraits of books and authors fail of inspiration, one could at least expect to be assured of impeccable scholarship. Yet it contains a shockingly serious lapse in scholarship.

    His sketch of Emily Bronte is based on a poem which he prints at length. This untitled poem, whose first line is "often rebuked, yet always back returning," was identified by C.W. Hatfield, the definitive Emily Bronte poetry scholar, as having been written by her sister Charlotte.

    Charlotte, who published 17 of Emily's poems after Emily's death, inserted an 18th, for which there is no manuscript copy. Hatfield points out, in his 1942 standard edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte, "that since the purpose of Charlotte's publication was to help bring the public to a better understanding of Emily's work, it would have been in keeping with the editorial liberties she took in other connections to offer such an interpretation of her sister in the guise of Emily's own words."

    Bloom's interpretation of Emily Bronte, based entirely on this specious poem, casts a pall over a book whose only certainty is its ability to impel its readers to read something else.