How should we read? Slowly, with love, openness, and with our inner ear cocked. Then we should reread, reread, reread, and do so aloud as often as possible. "As a boy of eight," he tells us, "I would walk about chanting Housman's and William Blake's lyrics to myself, and I still do, less frequently yet with undiminished fervor." And why should we engage in this apparently solitary activity? To increase our wit and imagination, our sense of intimacy--in short, our entire consciousness--and also to heal our pain. "Until you become yourself," Bloom avers, "what benefit can you be to others." So much for reading as an escape from the self!
Still, many of this volume's pleasures may indeed be selfish. The author is at his best when he is thinking aloud and anew, and his material offers him--and therefore us--endless opportunities for discovery. Bloom cherishes poetry because it is "a prophetic mode" and fiction for its wisdom. Intriguingly, he fears more for the fate of the latter: "Novels require more readers than poems do, a statement so odd that it puzzles me, even as I agree with it." We must, he adjures, crusade against its possible extinction and read novels "in the coming years of the third millennium, as they were read in the eighteenth and nineteenth century: for aesthetic pleasure and for spiritual insight."
Bloom is never heavy, since his vision quest contains a healthy love of irony--Jedediah Purdy, take note: "Strip irony away from reading, and it loses at once all discipline and all surprise." And this supreme critic makes us want to equal his reading prowess because he writes as well as he reads; his epigrams are equal to his opinions. He is also a master allusionist and quoter. His section on Hedda Gabler is preceded by three extraordinary statements, two from Ibsen, who insists, "There must be a troll in what I write." Who would not want to proceed? Of course, Bloom can also accomplish his goal by sheer obstinacy. As far as he is concerned, Don Quixote may have been the first novel but it remains to this day the best one. Is he perhaps tweaking us into reading this gigantic masterwork by such bald overstatement? Bloom knows full well that a prophet should stop at nothing to get his belief and love across, and throughout How to Read and Why he is as unstinting as the visionary company he adores. --Kerry Fried