Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom
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How to Read and Why
ISBN: 0684859068
How to Read and Why
"Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?" is the crucial question with which renowned literary critic Harold Bloom commences this impassioned book on the pleasures and benefits of reading well. For more than forty years, Bloom has transformed college students into lifelong readers with his unrivaled love for literature. Now, at a time when faster and easier electronic media threaten to eclipse the practice of reading, Bloom draws on his experience as critic, teacher, and prolific reader to plumb the great books for their sustaining wisdom.

Shedding all polemic, Bloom addresses the solitary reader, who, he urges, should read for the purest of all reasons: to discover and augment the self. Always dazzling in his ability to draw connections between texts across continents and centuries, Bloom instructs readers in how to immerse themselves in the different literary forms.

Probing discussions of the works of beloved writers such as William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner highlight the varied challenges and delights found in short stories, poems, novels, and plays. Bloom not only provides illuminating guidance on how to read a text but also illustrates what such reading can bring—aesthetic pleasure, increased individuality and self-knowledge, and the lifetime companionship of the most intriguing and complex literary characters.

Bloom's engaging prose and brilliant insights will send you hurrying back to old favorites and entice you to discover new ones. His ultimate faith in the restorative power of literature resonates on every page of this infinitely rewarding and important book.
—from the publisher's website

TRANSCRIPT
How to Read and Why
Program Air Date: September 3, 2000

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Professor Harold Bloom, can you remember the first time you ever read?
Professor HAROLD BLOOM (Author, "How to Read and Why"): Oh, yes. I was born 70 years ago in an all-Yiddish-speaking household in the old East Bronx, and I taught myself to read Yiddish when I was about three; Hebrew when I was about four and English when I was about five. And I read incessantly from the time I was three years old. In fact, I am a lifelong addict.
LAMB: Do you have any sense of why you started reading so young?
Prof. BLOOM: I've spent years thinking about it on and off. I was the fifth child, much the youngest, the last in a rather poor family. My father was a garment worker; my mother, a housewife. He had been born in Odessa; she, in Ashtetol, long since wiped out by the Nazis, near Brest-Litovsk. Nobody else in the family read. And, I don't know, I didn't think I was a changeling or anything. I--I loved and was loved by my siblings and my parents, but I--something in me was very lonely. Something in me felt what I think is the deep pleasure that solitary reading only could bring, and so I began to read incessantly.

There must be some genetic factor in this. I mean, eventually I tried to trace back our--you know, one could be of a proletarian family, ultimately of East Europe-Jewish peasant stock and still have Talmudists and Cabalists in the family tree, and, indeed, when I looked, they were there. So I'm probably a throwback.
LAMB: If we s--saw you in your situation where you were the happiest reading, where would that be?
Prof. BLOOM: At home in a huge, old house in New Haven, where my wife and I have lived for more than 40 years, in a large Norse chair that I've worn out so many times; I don't know whether this is the fourth or the fifth. And I collapse my Forstaphian bulk into it and--usually with six or seven books, and I--I read through them with great gusto.
LAMB: What's the longest you've ever sat and read?
Prof. BLOOM: In that chair? When I was younger, I could sit there for some time, until my wife would rouse me out and say, `This is bad for you. Go for at least a walk around the block or get on the exercise bike,' which is what she says these days. Sometimes when I'm writing a book, except for obvious needs, I--or being summoned to dinner--I--I stay in that chair, or I move to the dining room table because I can't bear to write when I'm by myself.

There's a huge study on the third floor, and, indeed, the house has some 50,000 books in it, and there are two large offices at Yale, which, between them, must have 30,000 more and an apartment in New York with another 15,000. But I--I don't like to be where the books are. I like to be where my wife is or somebody else is, perhaps one of my sons, and I like to just know that somebody else is there while I read or write. I mean, the activity is solitary, reading and writing, but one doesn't want to be completely lonely.
LAMB: Do you ever read non-fiction?
Prof. BLOOM: Oh, I read everything and anything. I'm a desperate reader. If I can't find anything else, my wife is likely to find me obsessively re-reading cereal box tops in the morning. And--but books flow in all the time, solicited and unsolicited, and manuscripts and proof copies and everything under the sun. Indeed, one of my jokes is that if some of my old friends, with whom I attended the Bronx High School of Science and who are fierce believers in the humanoid future of computers--if, indeed, artificial intelligence so develops that the computers do develop personalities and creative abilities of their own--one of my favorite sad jokes is that I expect, before I die, to be bombarded by the epics and romances of artificial intelligence, though I don't expect them to be of very high quality.
LAMB: How long have you been at Yale?
Prof. BLOOM: I got there as a graduate student in the autumn of 1950, so I've been there half a century. I've been full-time teaching on the faculty for 46 years now, and I have doubled as Berg Professor of English in the NYU Graduate School these last 13 years. I--I...
LAMB: How do you do both?
Prof. BLOOM: I have a great deal of teaching energy, as I have a great deal of reading and writing energy. Otherwise, I'm a pretty tired, old monster.
LAMB: How often do you go to the classroom? How many times do you teach a semester?
Prof. BLOOM: I generally--five terms out of six at Yale, I give two seminars: usually one graduate and one undergraduate; though some terms, both undergraduate. And I always teach Wednesday and Thursday from 1:30 to 3:30. But because I'm obsessive about getting to a classroom or anywhere else on time, I usually show up an hour and a half before the class and tell the students that I hate to sit in an office by myself. I--I shun my offices, except when I have to find a book. I--I tell the students to bring their lunch, and we'll hold office hours there.
LAMB: What--what do you think this thing is about always wanting to be with other people?
Prof. BLOOM: Well, I was never alone when I was a child. We were a family of seven crowded into four rooms, and they weren't large rooms. And certainly before I got married, I was very solitary. I don't know. I don't think it's the fear of mortality. I believe fiercely, as I say in the book you're holding, that one of the major reasons why we do read and should read is because we cannot possibly know enough people or know them closely enough.

But I suppose--I suppose, though I have been married for 42 years and have known the lady for 44 years, and she is the best company there is, I--I suppose something in me is unappeased and peregrine, as Mr. Eliot says in one of his poems. Strange person for me to quote, as he's not one of my favorite writers. I suppose my spirit is always somehow looking for something, but that--that--that's what being a reader is about, I would think, and that's what I am primarily. I mean, I'm a professional teacher, I'm a professional literary critic, a very old-fashioned one.

I now call myself at times, partly in self-deprication, but partly, I suppose, with a certain fury Bloom brontosaurus bardolater; that is to say, not only a worshiper of Shakespeare, but a brontosaurus, a dinosaur. I've never learned how to type; I still write everything all day long with an--black Pentel rolling writer ballpoint pen on a clipboard that an engineering student gave me as a gift back at Cornell in 1946, when I was a freshman, and always on long, yellow, legal pads. So I am something of a dinosaur. I've stopped using the Yale library; I send research assistants there. I cried when they switched from the card catalog so many years ago to a computer because I can't handle a computer. And something in me, though I'm not a Luddite, resists learning. I just--I just don't want to do it.
LAMB: What are your students telling you when they come to class, and what are you seeing in the students that might have changed because of cyberspace?
Prof. BLOOM: I think that the Yale students now--and I've known them for 46 years as students--I think they're intellectually at least as gifted as they ever were, but there is a difference. All but the very most intensely literary among them simply have read a lot less, both on their own and in school, before they come to Yale than, say, 20 years ago. And I think that has something to do with the screen. I mean, as I remark at the beginning of this book and as I f--though I--I tried to avoid polemic in this book as much as possible, if only because I am weary of polemic, though my opponents don't seem to be, judging by the reviews of this book that I haven't read, but I've been told about--I don't want to read them--there are two enemies of reading now in the world, not just in the English-speaking world.

One--and I think it's relatively minor, even though it's very annoying, and that has been the destruction--the lunatic destruction of literary studies, at least from my perspective, and its replacement by what is called cultural studies in all of the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world, and everyone knows what that phenomenon is. I mean, the--the now-weary phrase `political correctness' remains a perfectly good descriptive phrase for what has gone on and is, alas, still going on almost everywhere and which dominates, I would say, rather more than three-fifths of the tenured faculties in the English-speaking world, who really do represent a treason of the intellectuals, I think, a betrayal of the clerks.

But they will pass away. Their time is already going by. They are already--one reason why they are getting nastier than ever, particularly towards an old dinosaur like me, is simply because they've lost their clientele. The students--the undergraduate students flee them on every side. And, indeed, there is declining enrollment in what used to be the English departments of the Western world. And why shouldn't there be? Because--I don't think at Yale American studies, for instance, which is the one department at Yale where real adulteration has taken place--otherwise, on the whole, Yale remains almost, not quite, a citadel in literary and humanistic studies, certainly compared to almost anyplace else. And I know because I've been around the other places, too.

Certainly in American studies, they never read anymore. They never read American literature. They don't know who Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson or Henry James are. They--they study Coney Island. They study Batman comics. They study the peerless Madonna. They've studied Mormon theme parks. This--this is what people do in cultural studies, but this--this will pass. These people, alas, will be with us for a while, partly because of something that I seem to be a voice in the wilderness in speaking out against. And I don't think this is just sour grapes on my part as I approach my 70th birthday.

I think that academic tenure is an archaic and malicious institution, and I think it should be abolished everywhere. It was meant to protect freedom of thought and expression from university administrations or outward public and societal or even congressional pressures, but that isn't the way it has worked. It has worked so as to impose a kind of massive conformity in American colleges and universities and, indeed, by now, in secondary schools as well. I would like to see it abolished, though I have very little hope that it will be in my lifetime, even though it should go.

But this is minor. The--the--it--it will pass. I may pass with it, being old, but the more massive danger is obviously the screen, and not--not so much the e-book. I recently went through my one e-book experience. The New York Styles section sent me a Hewlett-Packard hand-held computer, on which Mr. Gates and company had downloaded, I would say, a 50th-rate thriller by the overrated Mr. Michael Crichton called "Timeline." And by pressing a button, I was able to read through this. I found it not a good experience, whether in terms of the quality of what I was reading or the ghastly procedure that I was following. I--I--I don't think that the e-book is going to destroy the printed book, as so many fear.

But the Internet, which I acknowledge is an economic and commercial necessity--the Internet--and many people disagree with me on this, I know--the Internet, I think, is a terrible danger to the life of the mind. It's a terrible danger to real reading because it's a kind of great, gray ocean in which everything merges with everything else. And extremely difficult--it is extremely difficult for a young person to establish standards of reading or to find again what could be called intellectual and aesthetic standards of judgment in relation to what is available on it. There is no guidance.

There is--if I may use a word now so much despised, there is no intellectual authority involved in it. It's--it doesn't seem, to me, a good mode of teaching, even as an instrument, even as a tool, because something about its very nature defeats, I think, what teaching ought to be.
LAMB: How does a teacher at a place like Yale know what other teachers are teaching? How do you find out? I mean, do you ever go to their classes?
Prof. BLOOM: No, un--unless I'm invited to. It would be an intrusion on their privacy, though they're perfectly free to come to mine, and people are always coming, though not necessarily people from Yale; people from abroad or from around the country. I--I don't care who comes. But I go around a great deal, I'm not sure--I mean, not only on book tours, but also lecturing or doing, sometimes a week at a time, at other universities, though I've had some recent bad experiences with that, and I have now determined to take myself off the road in terms of other universities.
LAMB: What made it bad, by the way?
Prof. BLOOM: Couple of years ago--can't remember this--whether this was two or three years ago--I did a week at Stanford University, a university which has gone through a good deal of political correctness. In the week I spent there, the only hour and a half that I enjoyed was when the then-splendid provost there, Condoleezza Rice, phoned me and asked me to come see her, and we had a very illuminating, mutual talk for an hour and a half. We--we are not in political agreement. You are--you are looking at an old-line voter for Norman Thomas, and I will hold my nose and vote for Albert Gore, as I did for Clinton. Un--unlike Miss Rice, I do not support the Bushes. But, culturally, I found that Miss Rice and I were in agreement.

I found my time at Stanford extremely stormy and distressing. I gave a public lecture, which, in modified and mollified form, is now the introduction called "The Way We Read Now," the prologue to this book. But I said things in it that aren't said here, which infuriated the audience so that...
LAMB: Like what?
Prof. BLOOM: Well, I said that--you will pardon my saying this, and your viewers will pardon my saying this, I said that if you were to purchase a desk or a table from a carpenter and the legs fell off, though you had paid for it, and it was not usable as a table or a desk, even if it had been created by a person of a particular multi-ethnic group or a particular sexual orientation or of a particular pigmentation or what--whatever you want to call these--these things, I--I--I still hold with E.M. Forster, who, in a passage to India, wisely said, `Well, what is this nonsense about being white? We should call ourselves pink or gray because that's our actual complexion.' I'm very weary of all this stuff.

But I--I said to them, `If the legs fell off, would you not demand a rebate? And it wouldn't do any good to be told that this was'--I mean, I don't want to go into individual nationalities or ethnic groups or, you know, the whole range of it. `It wouldn't do any--you know, you would still--no matter who you were,' I said to the audience, `you would demand your money back,' in which they saw where I was heading, and they started to boo me. I said, `Well, think--think about what I'm saying, you know. You insist that your table be well-made. You insist that your desk function. If you were being wheeled in for a brain operation, and you were told that the brain surgeon had been chosen on the basis of fairness, on the basis of universalism, on the basis of multiculturalism, you would jump right off the operating table. We do not enforce these things in the medical schools. We do not require these quotas in departments of mathematics or nuclear physics.'

And I said to the audience, `It shows you a profound contempt for humanistic study. It shows you a profound contempt for literature and for canonical literature; that you think it does not matter that you can have an absolutely mediocre piece of work, you know, where the legs fall off in a poem or a play or a novel. It does not matter to you at all. You only care about the origin of it.' This caused about half the audience to get very furious with me, indeed, but it seems to me I'm only telling the truth.

And then they went into a symposium the next day, in which the faculty members on it include--including one counterculturalist imported from Berkeley to rough me up, and I just sat there and listened to them abuse me and misrepresent me. And when it came my turn, I said, `You know, I'm getting a little old. We're going to take a five-minute break. And I invite the audience to stay behind, but everybody on this platform must go because I've heard only ignorance and abusiveness. I--I will not talk to them. I--I will entertain questions from the group.'

But my entire visit at Stanford was like that, even at the president's dinner table. I found it an absolutely embattled time, and I suppose that is the phenomenon that I'm also encountering in the reviews of this book, including both reviews in that countercultural American newspaper, which is now, of course, and always has been our establishment newspaper, The New York Times. The New York Times has lost all of its standards, so far as I can see, both intellectual and aesthetic. If I make more enemies among them, that will delight me. They cannot--they cannot be worse than they are already. There are a few people who can still read and think and write who can be found in The Times, but The New York Times Magazine is now indistinguishable from the SoHo News. It's preposterous. Indeed, it is edited by the former editor of the SoHo News, and he's been very successful in getting lots of advertisements, so doubtless he will be there forever.

But I cannot imagine that--that a reader of any intellectual interest whatsoever, but an intelligent reader, should want to read The New York Times Magazine or should want to read what passes for the book reviews in that absurd New York Times Sunday Book Review, which I will certainly never write a review for again. I'll have nothing to do with them. They--they have become broadly countercultural.

It was only two or three years ago that I read one of their rock critics, who's--I'm--I--I will not name him, making a very serious comparison. He--he--he was not being ironical, in which he compared the glyph formerly known as Prince to the young Mozart, saying that they were absolutely equivalent in genius and that it was only our absurd, reactionary, cultural prejudices that kept us from seeing this. That is The New York Times. That is--that is the way we live now. That is the way we read now. Of course, they also can't parse. They're ungrammatical. They misspell. They misuse words. They're--they're a preposterous thing.
LAMB: What caused this, in your opinion?
Prof. BLOOM: For 33 years now--and I don't wish to be confused with my late acquaintance, Allan Bloom, and I am not a conservative, far from it, politically speaking, not even culturally--but from 1967 until the present, for one-third of the century, we have had the gradual triumph of the counterculture in the United States, and not just in the United States, in the entire English-speaking world and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the rest of both the Western and, indeed, by now, the Eastern world. Questions of taste and judgment now seem to rely entirely upon information and not at all upon what I would call learning or wisdom. This can be deplored, but it is not going to change or pass.

Indeed, where has this not seeped by now? About two years ago, the old British Museum Reading Room was transformed into what is now called the British Library. I received a phone call from the gentleman who was the incoming head of this institution, who told me, over the long-distance phone, that they were inaugurating their new existence with a weeklong celebration called An Age of Information. And I said, `Why are you calling me, sir?' He said, `Well, we only want you there for the last day, Friday, after tea time when you and two other gentlemen will have a panel discussion on what it means culturally to have entered the age of information.' I said, `You don't want me.' He said, `Oh, yes, we do want you.' He said, `There will be Sir So-and-so and Lord So-and-so.' I said, `I don't know who they are.'

He got rather offended and explained to me, in rather hurt tones, that Sir So-and-so was the leading British authority on information retrieval. I told him honestly, and it's still true, I did not know what information retrieval was, and I did not wish to find out, and I still don't know what it is. I said, `Who is the other gentleman?' And then he said, quite coldly, `He is our leading authority on software.' I said, `I've never learned to type. I'm not at all sure what software is.' He said, `It doesn't matter.' He said, `In any case, Professor Bloom, you ought to come. You will represent the book.' I said, `This is ridiculous.' I said, `You're going to ask me to have a discussion with an authority on something called information retrieval and an authority on software, and I, wretched creature, am supposed to represent the book? I am highly inadequate to represent the book. Anybody would be. And I will not come. Goodbye, sir.' But that is the British Library.

I think the Library of Congress, where I believe I speak today in the Mumford Room, has not gone quite that far; at least I hope not. I'm not that much in Washington these days.

But these--these cracks and strains, which have deeply wounded our universities and colleges and which have, I think, destroyed, for cultural purposes, a great institution like The New York Times--I think they operate now in the great public libraries also. I've been speaking at a great many public libraries across the country, and I ask them about their rare book collections, I ask them whether they are maintaining themselves as circulation librarians, and they dishearten me by telling me all too often that they're only open three days a week. And all too often they tell me that they now concentrate entirely upon providing computer services. And it breaks what is left of my heart because I would have been nowhere in this life without the various branches of the New York Public Library when I was growing up.

I--I started reading at the Melrose branch of the Bronx Public Library when I was still so small I couldn't carry the books home. My three sisters, much older, kindly carried them for me. And I went from the Melrose branch of the Bronx Public Library, after I'd read through it, to the Fordham branch of the Bronx Library, which is its research branch, and I used that up. And I descended, at 15, clutching my nickels in my hand for the subway, to the 42nd Street Library, determined to read through that in the main reading room. And, of course, I would never have succeeded. But soon enough, I was a Cornell undergraduate, having won a fellowship, and spent four years trying to read out that library and, for the last 46 years, have been trying to read out the Yale Library, which no human being can read through, though I've done what I could.

But it--it worries me deeply what is happening to our public libraries, to our library systems in general. They used to receive much more government funding than they receive now, and I do not hear anyone in either party running for office this time talking about public libraries, except to utter the shibboleth `more and better computers.' You know, one computer per child.
LAMB: You--go back to what you said, if you don't mind, at Yale and your politics vs. the other professors'. What would you say the--you know, in the politic--what is the...
Prof. BLOOM: I--I don't think it is a--forgive me for interrupting you, Brian, I don't think it's a political question. You know, I'm tired of being tarred. I--I--I've been voting for Democrats for president or for socialists, when I could find them, for--let's see, I started when I was 18. I mean, here, I've been voting for 52 years, and I've never voted for a Republican for dogcatcher, and I wouldn't start now. I forgive all the Republicans out there, or let them forgive me. I'm not a conservative. I'm anything but a conservative.

I think that the United States has been almost destroyed by Ronald Reagan and his legacy. He came into office that charming, smiling fellow, and he assured us we could all emancipate our selfishness, and that is what we have proceeded to do on a national level. And I think we have done terrible things to the poorer people in this country. And Mr. Clinton, whom I voted for twice, nevertheless, signed the welfare bill and put five million more children under the poverty line. Let it be said in his defense that I gather he has done everything he could to partly make up for this, you know, as best he could. But, still, I am not happy with him.

No, I--I--it--I don't think this is a political difference. I don't even think this is a cultural difference because I don't think there can be cultural differences in that sense. It's an intellectual difference and an aesthetic difference, and though I hate to use the term because it can so easily be misconstrued in a religion-mad country like the United States, it ultimately has to be a spiritual difference. Either you believe that reading and teaching and thinking about the best that has been thought and written and said matters and does everyone a great deal of good, or you do not.

And most of these people now in the university, and certainly these people in the media and The New York Times don't believe that at all. Either you believe that--you know, what has it got to do with politics? Leon Trotsky, who was a great, though murderous, human being, but a remarkable writer. And in his own way, a remarkable literary critic. He wrote quite a book called "Literature and Revolution," which I frequently cite against the politically correct and the school of resentment because in it, he--he addresses himself to the revolutionary or Marxist writer and he says, `Take Dante for your textbook.' And he is quite right.

Indeed, whatever your politics are, whatever your aspirations are, take Dante for you textbook, take Shakespeare for your textbook, take Cervantes or Chaucer or Homer or, indeed, the Bible, not as fundamentalists read it, but as we ought to read it. Take, indeed, the best that has been written for your textbook, and educate yourself from it. I begin this book by saying, `Information is readily available to us. Where shall wisdom be found?' And the answer, `It is to be found where it was always to be found, in--in the greatest minds and the greatest writers. And they are usually the same--the same.' You know, it is to be found in Shakespeare and Milton. It is to be found in William Blake. It is to be found in Dante. It is to be found in Cervantes. I wouldn't mind so-called multiculturalism at all, if, say, for Hispanic purposes, they were to replace Shakespeare even by Cervantes. I would say, `Fine. I have no quarrel with this. Cervantes is an almost equal eminence. "La Quijote" and the other writings of Cervantes also touch the limits of human art and of human thought. If you wish Hispanic multiculturalism, let them read Cervantes. But let them not read mediocrity. Let them not read bad writing. Let them not read ill-thought matters, simply because they are written by contemporary members of a particular, as we call it, ethnic group.

To balkanize the study of literature, indeed the study of all the arts, as we have now done in the universities and the colleges, is fatal. It will not make us a better country; it will make us a worse country. It will finally balkanize us as a nation, and we have enough troubles without that.
LAMB: You write a lot about Cormac McCarthy.
Prof. BLOOM: Ah, yes.
LAMB: Contemporary...
Prof. BLOOM: Ah, yes. One book in particular, a very great book and I'm very glad you bring it up, Brian, a book called "Blood Meridian," which I write about at some length at one point in this book. Many of McCarthy's novels are remarkable, including "All The Pretty Horses," the first volume of the Border Trilogy. I--I don't think the second and third volumes are quite as fine. And some of his earlier novels like "Suttree" are very Faulknerian, somewhat derivative, are still remarkable books. But he has written one masterpiece, which I would say is--I mean, of contemporary American fiction, of fiction written by human beings still alive and among us, I would list Philip Roth's "Sabbath's Theater" and "American Pastoral." I would list Don DeLillo's "Underworld." I would certainly list Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" and "Gravity's Rainbow" and his recent and magnificent "Mason and Dixon."

But if I had to vote for one novel by a living American, it would be "Blood Meridian," which is a fearsome story and terrible parable in which I think has a deep, implicit warning for current American society. I mean, our gun-crazy country, where Charlton Heston appears endlessly on television and--amazes me. He angrily says, `President Clinton, why do you talk of 22 children shot here or there and you don't talk about the--the tens, the perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars that the NRA is spending to educate young people how to properly handle guns.' I cannot believe the madness of what I'm hearing. But it is all straight out of "Blood Meridian" because "Blood Meridian" is the ultimate Western. It is a historically, closely based account of a terrifying scalping expedition organized by Mexican and Texan authorities in 1849-50 to simply wipe out all of the Southwestern Native Americans in order to clear the way to the gold fields.

And the Glanton gang, an extraordinary group of free booters or filibusters, have with them as their spiritual leader a frightening manifestation, a Melvilleian--a kind of human Moby Dick, Judge Holden, who is a vast albino fellow as round as I am but seven foot tall and who has all languages, all knowledges and who preaches endlessly of the theology of violence and war, and who is still alive and dancing and fiddling and proclaiming that he will never die at the end of the book. And indeed, he has never died. He--he is responsible for those horrible posses we have out there in Idaho. He is responsible for those people who blew up the Federal Building. He is responsible for these mad people who break into schools and shoot children. There is--we--we are a country that has had a kind of perpetual ongoing religious revival since the year 1800, and simultaneously, we have been completely gun crazy for the last two centuries. And in some sense, that's what McCarthy's great book is about.
LAMB: How many times have you read "Blood Meridian"?
Prof. BLOOM: Oh, I teach it steadily in a course called How to Read and Why, so I must have read it by now--since I re-read everything I really care for--20 or 30 times. Probably I have it memorized by now. But it's fascinating to me that you ask that, Brian, because the first two times that I read it, I could not read it. And I admit this to my students and I admit that in this book. I broke down--I don't know what--after 15 or 20 pages the first time and after 70 or 80 pages the second, because the sheer carnage of it, though it is intensely stylized, is nevertheless overwhelming. It's--it's--it's shocking. It's--it's horrifying. And it takes a very strong stomach, but if you break through it, if you--if you read your way into the cosmos of the book, then you are rewarded. You get an extraordinary landscape. You get an extraordinary visionary intensity of personality and character. You get a great vision, a frightening vision of what is indeed something very deeply embedded in the American spirit, in the American psyche. And the more you read the book, I find, the more you will be able to read the book. It is--it's as close, I think, to being the American prose epic as one can find, more perhaps even than Faulkner, though there are individual books by Faulkner like "As I Lay Dying," which are perhaps of even higher aesthetic quality and originality than "Blood Meridian." But I think you would have to go back to "Moby Dick" for an American epic that fully compares to "Blood Meridian."
LAMB: When you read, do you make notes?
Prof. BLOOM: No, no. I have--that, too, was inherited. No doubt I have a scandalous memory. I remember what I read. Indeed, if it is poetry and if I fall in love with it, if it seems to me inevitably phrased, then I simply remember it and hold onto it forever. And indeed, in this book, I urge memorization. I must be the last professor of literature in the United States who occasionally will say to a very good class, `For next week, read Tennyson's "Ulysses." Don't learn it by rote, but read it out loud when you're alone with yourself. Read it again and again. Brood on what it means, possess it by memory and come in and, you know, as we talk about it to one another, let us recite it to one another.' And indeed, tonight, at the Mumford Room, I intend to recite Tennyson's "Ulysses" and to talk about it, partly to read what I have to say about it in the book.

Memorizing went out of fashion in American education because it had been brutalized, it had been debased into just reputation by rote. But I think it is not only a legitimate but a crucial mode of teaching and always has been in all the great religious traditions and the great secular traditions of humanistic learning also. I would grieve it a little further. You cannot think, you cannot be cognitively acute without memory. Remembering is absolutely essential to thinking. And if you don't read and read deeply and if you don't possess whether you memorize it or not, you don't powerfully and deeply possess very strong works of literature and thought indeed, then you will impoverish your thinking. And if we impoverish our thinking, if it becomes any more adulterated than it has already in the last third of the century, then I would fear for what is, after all, most precious about this country. We--we defend individual rights, as the recent vote of the Supreme Court, 7-to-2, on Miranda shows. We--we care passionately about them. They are built into our Constitution.

But I would fear for the political future of democracy in this large and varied country if we really do stop reading deeply and holding on to what we read, if we stop reading the best that has been written, because then I think we will not think as clearly or as well and we will be subject to demagoguery. I find it powerfully offensive that one of the two major presidential candidates is perhaps the least distinguished graduate of the entire history of Yale University, and I've taught there for 46 years, though I never taught this gentleman. But he has boasted to the press, at least until his people told him to talk differently about it, but he began by boasting to the press that he had never read a book through since he left Yale. And indeed, he laughed, he hadn't read many through there. And, of course, I believe him, and I see columns or I see very dubious historians like Mr. Michael Bechloss, another instance of the media, proclaiming that it doesn't matter whether presidents read or not. I think it matters a great deal.

If you want to see an instance of American cultural and political decline, think that the last time we had a father and a son be presidents of the United States, it was no less than John Adams and John Quincy Adams. And I have read them both at length. I have read what they have written, including their letters. They were men of enormous intellect and humane culture. Obviously, the father-son combination who we may well make our next father and son presidential duo are a long way from John Adams and John Quincy Adams. That, I think, is not a matter to scoff about or utter placebos about. I think that is a terrible instance of cultural loss, and it is something that we will pay for politically, inevitably and finally. Who knows how great the press will be?
LAMB: Your comment about the--did you say--Michael Bechloss--a dubious historian?
Prof. BLOOM: I find him a very dubious historian, yes. I find him another time server. Perhaps I'm being libelous, I don't know. But I saw a piece by him in that wretched New York Times in which he said, `Why--why--why should we make a fuss about whether or not a particular president or presidential candidate has done any deep reading at all? It's'--he said, `It's not at all essential for a president. They--they might be much better presidents for not having read at all.' I--I--I find that disgusting.
LAMB: What do you mean by time server?
Prof. BLOOM: Serving the time, trimming your coat, going with the cultural wind, saying what will please the many, whether or not it is true.
LAMB: Do you--do you find yourself isolated at Yale?
Prof. BLOOM: At Yale?
LAMB: Yeah, with these attitudes...
Prof. BLOOM: By now means completely. I am overwhelmed by students.
LAMB: I'm not talking about students so much as professors.
Prof. BLOOM: I--I teach as many students as I--no. No. I have--I'm not in a department. I divorced the Yale English Department in 1976, and that's almost a quarter of a century ago, because I did not like what was happening. So I got reappointed by the Yale Corporation as our only university professor, though I teach for the English Department, I teach for the humanities division, I teach for other departments, and I teach a great many students. But, no, no, there are--there are many people at Yale, both of my generation and younger than myself, who are serious scholars, passionate teachers, who care intensely about thought and art and about the preserving of standards of education. No, I don't feel isolated at Yale. Do I feel isolated in America? Yeah, I guess, in a way, I do. It does seem to me I'm a somewhat outspoken old monster, you know. Why not at my age? What--what can they do to me? One wants to tell the truth. And I think the truth is pretty dreadful nowadays, culturally speaking and intellectually speaking. I suppose I feel fairly isolated. I won't read reviews of me because I know what they will be like. They will be written by people who feel profound resentment of me. Doesn't matter. Isolated--but, you know, I--I can't feel isolated.

I mean, I'm too tired really to go on the road as much as I do in support of a new book that I've written, but wherever I've gone--and it's seven or eight cities by now--as last night, at Politics and Prose here, an overwhelming number of people there, many more than I expect. And I've been told by thousands of people now and it's--it's chastening and humbling. People come up to me and we can only talk maybe for four or five minutes each, but they rather break my heart by saying that while we've never met before, they regard me as their teacher. It only makes me feel inadequate because, you know, one has terrible limitations as a teacher, but one cares immensely and one will go on teaching and one always taught with as much passion and intellect as one can bring to it. But, yeah, I guess I feel kind of isolated.

But, you know, i--i--isolated maybe in the profession, isolated in terms of the media, isolated in terms of the time servers, as I call them, the vicars of bray, the trimmers. But not isolated with the reading public. Clearly, I am read. Clearly, from the thousands of letters I get and I can't answer them all. It's impossible. I wouldn't do anything else, and I couldn't do it even then. But I answer the ones I can. Clearly, there are a vast number of what I would call solitary and authentic deep readers in the United States who have not gone the way of the counterculture. And they are of all ages and they're of all races and all ethnic groups, as I saw again last night at Politics & Prose and have seen wherever I've gone. And certainly, I don't feel isolated as a teacher because though I admit as many students as I can possibly handle into my classes at both Yale and NYU, my Yale seminars are preposterously large and I have to make a tremendous effort to get to talk to people individually and to get to know people individually, so I guess I feel partly isolated because here I am about to turn 70 and maybe--maybe I am obsolete, but that's just personal inadequacy. What--what I hope to represent, what I try to represent, that cannot be obsolete. If that is obsolete, then we will go down. But I'm being too emotional, so I'm sorry.
LAMB: Your wife, you mentioned earlier...
Prof. BLOOM: Yes.
LAMB: ...on several occasions. What's her name?
Prof. BLOOM: Jean.
LAMB: Where'd you meet her?
Prof. BLOOM: I met her at Yale. She was a graduate student in American Colonial history. I was already a faculty instructor in the English Department. That was 44 years ago. We've been married 42 years now. She worked for many, many years as a school psychologist in the Branford Public School system. She retired from it very reluctantly last June. I didn't urge her to do it, but I--I was very glad she did because I worried about her health. It's a very stressful job, being a school psychologist, particularly these days because when children have learning difficulties or are learning disabled or need special education, it hurts their parents. And the school psychologist has to get together with a teacher and the parents and the student. And she would come home all too often--being a very conscientious and honest person, she would come home too stressed and I would be helpless to be of any aid to her. So it's a great relief to me and also gives me much more company. And indeed, I couldn't go on the road as I do because I'm too subject to exhaustion, and she sustains me.
LAMB: Kids?
Prof. BLOOM: Two sons.
LAMB: How old?
Prof. BLOOM: One is 37, one is 34.
LAMB: And what do they do?
Prof. BLOOM: Oh, I'd rather not go into that. I mean, the--the older one is not quite well.
LAMB: What about reading at--you know, for folks watching and they're interested in this idea and they've never read, what recommendations--I mean, never read a lot, but what--how would you recommend somebody start?
Prof. BLOOM: To start? One hopes, of course, that they will start as children, but if they haven't started as children, if they haven't read Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear or "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame, that beautiful book, I guess a wonderful place to start would be with a book that I fell madly in love with when I was 11 or 12 and must have read a hundred times since, "The Pickwick Papers" of Charles Dickens, an immensely readable and loveable book and open. Open, humorous, charming, simple to read. Immensely rewarding. And, of course, with the earlier plays of Shakespeare, with "Romeo and Juliet" until, you know, one can go on to "Hamlet," until one can go on to the two parts of "Henry IV" and my great hero Sir John Fulstaff, with Jane Austen, with the simpler novels like "Sense and Sensibility" to begin with, but to go on to "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma" and "Persuasion," which are books of almost Shakespearean quality and intensity.
LAMB: What about speed? How fast should you read?
Prof. BLOOM: I--I don't think there are any rules or advice on that. I mean, everybody will find her or his own natural pace. I'm hardly an advocate of speed reading. I happen myself to be just as I have a preternatural memory, I had particularly when I was younger a scandalous rate of reading. It has fortunately slowed down as I have gotten old, but I still read very quickly indeed. But again, I suspect it's a ...talmudic inheritance and that these things must in some way be genetically transmitted or transmitted in some way.

But I--I don't think it matters how fast you read. I mean, for reading there never will be enough time. And as I say in this book, ultimately, you read against the clock because--you know, I remember arguing in a book called "The Western Cannon" that if we had not just our 70 or 75 or 80 years, depending upon medicine, if we all were going to live 140 or 150 years, there would be no argument about "The Cannon." There would be ... world enough in time to read everything. And if you wished to read on a representative basis rather than on the basis of high intellectual and aesthetic quality, I would have no quarrel with it.

But time is limited, you know. There is only so much time. And there is so much to read that would really enhance your life. It is as I argue in this book not only one of the most intense of all pleasures, but I think it is the most healing of all pleasures. I think it is more profoundly therapeutic than most of what is urged upon us as therapy. I mean, one does not quarrel, of course, with antidepressant drugs or anti-schizophrenic drugs. They are essential. But when it comes to the various modes of talking therapy or even of spiritual therapy, I would urge a deep course of solitary reading of the books that most matter instead.
LAMB: What about place?
Prof. BLOOM: Place?
LAMB: Where should you read? What's your environment? What should it be?
Prof. BLOOM: Wherever you are, wherever you can read. Whether you're alone or with others, it's a very good thing to read aloud, whether to yourself or to others, if they will countenance it. Read where you can and whenever you can. The editors of Shakespeare's first folio, published, of course, after his death, his fellows actors and company members, Heminge and Condell, ended their preface to the first folio by saying, `Read him and read him again,' something that all the theatricalists who insist that Shakespeare is only to be acted and not to be read should perhaps take to heart. It is very rare these days to, I think, do what are called high concept and politicized directors that I'm willing to sit through a performance of Shakespeare because while the quality of acting, particular of British actors, is extraordinary, the quality of directors, particular of British directors, is abominable. So I don't often manage to sit through a production of Shakespeare, which saddens me.
LAMB: What about things like music? Do you listen to music while you read?
Prof. BLOOM: Not while I read, no.
LAMB: Not while you read.
Prof. BLOOM: No, not while I read.
LAMB: Silence in the room.
Prof. BLOOM: As much as possible.
LAMB: And what's the thought there? Why wouldn't you listen to music?
Prof. BLOOM: Well, if I'm reading Shakespeare, if I'm reading Chaucer, if I'm reading Dante, if I'm reading Dickens or Jane Austen or Cormac McCarthy, I--I want to bring the whole of me to it. You know, I want to be totally lost and absorbed in it. I want it to take me over, though at the same time, I want to maintain my critical faculties, but I don't want distractions, if I can possibly avoid having distractions.

The other day, I read somewhere something that delighted me. The suggestion that how wonderful it would be if we had had e-books for many centuries now, and suddenly, we had that marvelous great technological advance, the printed book. You know, how wonderfully we would welcome the printed book. You don't have to plug it in, you don't have to worry about whether your machine is operating properly or not. You don't have to download it. You just have to pick it up, poor dog-eared thing that it frequently is when you've read it enough, and carry it along with you and settle down in a corner with it. How--what a marvelous technological advance we would celebrate it as being.
LAMB: How long do you plan to teach?
Prof. BLOOM: I have told the president of Yale, Rick Levin, who is a very splendid man, that I intend to be carried out of my very last Yale class in a large body bag, still talking, many years down the road. I--I will not retire. I don't think they will wish me to retire. I don't think they can or will make me retire. Obviously, if my health goes completely at some point and I cannot get myself into the classroom, if my mind goes and I can no longer think and articulate clearly, if I'm not capable of teaching well, then I will stop teaching. But otherwise--otherwise, I would hope to teach until I die. It's--it's what I do. It's what I've done for 46 years. And I think I would go mad and feel worse than useless without it.
LAMB: This is the book. It's called "How to Read and Why." Our guest has been Professor Harold Bloom. And we thank you very much.
Prof. BLOOM: Thank you very much, Brian.


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