On Oct. 14, 2019, Harold Bloom died at the age of 89. He was a well-known American literary critic, a renowned academic at Yale University, the author of 40 books and the editor of many dozens more, and a prolific man of letters. It has been said by his friends that he could read hundreds of pages of text in an hour and recite the entire works of Shakespeare from memory.
Bloom was also a veteran of the so-called ‘canon wars’, fought more than a generation ago on the issue of which literary texts were to be assigned to students in university classrooms. His efforts then still shape thinking about reading and the study of literature.
His most popular book was ‘The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages’, published in 1994. Many other books followed, including ‘How to Read and Why’ (2000) and most recently ‘Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism’ (2019), which expanded on the ideas of the earlier book.
Reading was, Bloom so often noted, a serious but lonely activity. There were plenty of reasons for a person to read; such as to learn something new, to be knowledgeable and to find out something about themselves and others, but the greatest motive was to engage with works of true genius. ‘Read deeply,’ he stated, ‘not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.’
the beginning of ‘The Western Canon’ he asked a weighty question: ‘What, in the little time we have, shall we read?’ His answer was a canon list of books which he argued were of such creative genius and aesthetic merit that they simply had to be read and read again and again.
The list contained 26 authors, four women and the rest men, all drawn from the European and American traditions. It included, among others, Dante, Milton, Goethe, Austen, Dickenson, Dickens and Beckett. At the heart of his canon list was Shakespeare.
Bloom’s narrow list was based on his firm belief that books should only be considered on their aesthetic merit. There was no need to look at their political, ideological, social or moral contexts, and certainly no room for Marxist, multicultural, feminist or other interpretations. Those were distractions which if pursued would, he wrote a few years later, destroy ‘all esthetic standards in the name of social justice.’
Many people today may not go so far as Bloom did in thinking about reading and literature but they share his idea that there are great books and classic works of literature, exclusive literary masters, and the belief that some books are not just better but worthier than others.
Echoes of Bloom can be heard in some schools and libraries, and among parents and educators. How often are children and young people told that they need to read something better? That they need to learn to appreciate literature and proper reading? Or that new authors and books will never be the equal of the literary classics and the true masters? Many people hold to the idea that there are certain classic books that have the power to turn even the most reluctant reader into a fanatical one. There are those who cheer Bloom’s line that many readers are as ‘lemmings who devour J. K. Rowling and Stephen King as they race down the cliffs to intellectual suicide in the gray ocean of the Internet.’
Harold Bloom has left us a tremendous legacy. It is one that goes deep into our understanding of reading, books and even education. It is a legacy that should be revisited, and the best way to do that is to ask ourselves, as he did, ‘What, in the little time we have, shall we read?’
Adam Davies is a Pugwash resident and former member of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board. He works with the Cumberland Public Libraries.