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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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