Why Study Literature:
A critique of Harald Bloom's "How to Read and Why"
25 September 2018
This is an edited version of a Monash University assignment for English Literature from 21 August 2015
You can read Harald Bloom's How to Read and Why HERE.
Ask any literature lover and they will agree with Eagleton (2013:179) when he says, “Language is a work of astonishing creativity. It is by far the most magnificent artefact humanity has ever come up with.” In an interview with Bill Moyers, Margaret Atwood brings us back to basics when answering the question of why literature is so important. She asserts that “literature is art, and art is what makes us human” (Atwood, 2006).
We may read to simply be entertained and feed our souls or we may read more deeply and use literature as a window, either for looking inwardly for self-reflection, or to peer out from our daily lives and enter imaginary worlds. In this essay I will look at Harold Bloom’s Prologue in How to Read and Why, in order to critically assess his argument for why to study literature.
In essence, Bloom’s two main arguments about how to read are similar to Virginia Woolf’s in “How Should One Read a Book?” Bloom concludes we should “learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads” (p29), which is really the same as Woolf’s argument: “To read a book well, one should read it as if one were writing it” (Woolf, 2001:43). Woolf (2001:50) says that there are two processes of reading – the actual reading and the after reading, meaning that it takes time to process the information. Bloom’s advice is really no different to that, as he asks us to “weigh and consider” (p21).
I agree with Bloom that reading, and deep reading (or studying literature) in particular, fosters higher order thinking. By analysing text and finding its themes, symbols, motifs and literary techniques we get a deeper meaning, thereby increasing comprehension and affective learning (Collins, 2014). Greig (1930:420) says that “we need literature” for its transformative quality.
In other words, by having an open mind when we study literature we constantly learn to adapt to new situations, which as Greig (1930:420) posits, makes for “success in individual and national life”. The New School for Social Research in New York has found that people who read literary novels scored higher on the ability to decipher other’s motives and emotions, meaning they have an increased capacity for empathy (Bower, 2013).
Here, Bloom differs as he argues that the pleasures of reading are selfish rather than social and that we “cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply” (p22). I would like to see proof to back up this argument. I argue that in this modern, secular world where community is hugely lacking (Bauman, 2001), being able to share ideas and opinions gleaned from a book within the safe haven of a book club can be tremendously beneficial for the psyche and the soul.
Doing a solitary reading will “strengthen the self” as Bloom puts it (p22), but doing a solitary reading followed by sharing will strengthen not only the self but will also increase, firstly, the bond between like-minded individuals and, secondly, a feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself only.
Bloom argues that we should clear our mind of 'cant' (p23) and that ideology should not cloud our own solitary reading, as purely approaching literature in our own idiosyncratic way without any pre-conceived ideas will bring out our authentic self. The only way for self-improvement, he argues, is when the mind is “kept at home until its primal ignorance has been purged” (p24).
In other words, Bloom is saying that in order to become an authentic, full human being one must remove oneself from any ‘pre-understandings’ - to borrow Heidegger’s synonym for ideology (Eagleton, 1991:3) - of human existence. But is this not an ideology in itself, not to mention oxymoronic?
I agree with Eagleton when he claims, “There is no such thing as presuppositonless thought, and to this extent all of our thinking might be said to be ideological” (Eagleton, 1991:3-4). How, indeed, would we identify an issue or situation, let alone pass judgment upon it if it wasn’t possible to measure it against what came before? We, and all the forms of art we produce besides, are a product of evolution. Borrowing (proving a case in point) from Eagleton (2013:178-179), “no work of art springs out of nothing” and “we are forever recycling our signs”.
In conclusion I would like to borrow this advertising slogan by The University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences (Smith Journal, Volume 15, Winter 2015, p63): “A School that teaches you How to Think, not What to Think.” In my opinion, if Bloom had taken this attitude, showing more of how to read and why – as his title suggests, rather than superciliously telling us what to think and read, his suggestions would be much more readily received.
Bauman, Z. (2001). Community: Seeking Safety in an insecure world. Cambridge: Polity.
Bloom, H. (2000). Prologue: Why Read? In How to Read and Why, pp21-29. London: Fourth Estate.
Bower, B. (2013). Reading high-brow literature may aid in reading minds: Immersion in fiction boosts social insights. ScienceNews. Available from: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/reading-high-brow-literature-may-aid-reading-minds
Collins, R. (29 Aug 2014). Skills for the 21st Century: teaching higher-order thinking. Available at http://www.curriculum.edu.au/leader/teaching_higher_order_thinking,37431.html?issueID=12910
Eagleton, T. (1991). Ideology: An Introduction. New York: Verso.
Eagleton, T. (2013). Value. In How to Read Literature (pp175-206). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Greig, J.Y.T. (1930). Why Study Literature? The Sewanee Review, 38 (4), 415-421.
Margaret Atwood on Religion. (31 Jul 2006) Interview by Bill Moyers with Margaret Atwood published by thegravitybomb. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2FsnPzgZJw
Weiss, A. (1991). Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No.1. The Paris Review. Available from:
Woolf, V. (2001). How Should One Read A Book? The Yale Review, 89 (1), 41-52.
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