Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harold Bloom Is Inspiring Me

Time: A Sunday night in late June, after the kids were asleep.

Place: My bedroom, sitting in bed.

With my trusty TiVo remote in hand I turned on the TV and clicked to see what TiVo had in its lineup on the “Now Playing” list. I had given BookTV a three thumbs-up rating and so when there is disk space TiVo will record some of the BookTV programs for me automatically.

The show was BookNotes and this episode’s title was “How to Read and Why” caught my eye and although I’d never heard of Harold Bloom, I hit the play button. The show was a re-run of an interview which originally aired on June 28, 2000. The interview was an hour long, and it was part of a promotion for Bloom’s book “How to Read and Why” which was released in 2000. You can read a transcript of the entire interview here.

As the interview began I nearly fell over; I would have if I was standing up. I loved everything I was hearing Professor Bloom say about the importance of reading and the importance of reading great literature. I kept pausing the show and nudging my husband to stop reading his book and to please listen to what Bloom was saying. My husband liked what he was hearing. I love most of all that he has opinions and he voices them even though he goes against the grain of what his fellow-professors think.

As I watched the show I was reassured that homeschooling with the classical method was the right and best thing to do, for one reason, because I have a goal in our homeschool to surround ourselves with books and to read many books. I want my children to have minimal exposure to dry textbooks, and instead, to get in touch with the author’s minds directly by reading books written by one author. I have always wanted my young children to read and hear the best books for young children. A goal I have for their teenage years is to read the classics, the best literature that I had never read.

Harold Bloom is my hero! And I had never heard of him. How could it be that I was unaware of Bloom’s existence? When I learned he lives in New Haven is a professor at Yale since 1950 I was dumbstruck, as I grew up and still live quite close to him, who knew? The icing on the cake is when I found out his wife worked for years in my hometown in the public school system (where I attended public school). How bizarre is that?

We live in a big world but also a small world. First, how could a book lover like me never have known about Harold Bloom, who is a literary critic? (After researching him on the Internet I realized that he is a very well known person in the book world, the literature world and the college academia world. So why was I so clueless, probably because I am busy reading books not reading books about reading books, for one thing.) Another reason is that I’ve not read a ton of what the academics call “literature” and my education didn’t contains the classics that Bloom writes about.

As Professor Bloom began telling his story about having grown up in a family of non-readers (like me) I became more and more curious about him. I was awed by the fact that he taught himself to read Yiddish at age three (he lived in a Yiddish speaking household). He taught himself to read Hebrew at age four and English at age five. He later described himself as a book addict and obsessive about books. I found this fascinating to hear.

Bloom was 70 years old at the time of the interview and I got worried and wondered if he was still alive. He made it clear in the interview that he hates computers, doesn’t use them and sticks to pen and paper and reads paper books and is basically against technology. However thanks to my computer and the Internet, the next day, I learned that he is indeed still alive (thank goodness).

My jaw was hanging as he said he has over 50,000 books in his New Haven home, another 30,000 in his two Yale offices combined and another 15,000 in his New York City apartment. So my 6000+ books is a drop in the bucket. This is further proof that although I am indeed a book addict and obsessed by books at least there is someone else out there who owns more books than me and thinks there is nothing wrong with it.

As I said, the entire transcript of that interview is online, in case you want to read it.

Some of my favorite parts:

When asked how fast one should read…after saying it doesn’t matter how fast he said:

"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."

When asked “Where should (a person) read?” he replied in part:

“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."

When asked what should a non-reader read, he replied:

"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."

One thing that I related to was the stories of how Bloom fell in love with reading during his extensive use of the public library system. In December 2005 I blogged about the library in my hometown and its influence on helping me become who I am. Here is the opening paragraph:

I believe that my positive experience with my hometown library was a big influence on who I became as a person. I feel the public library helped me become a bookworm and encouraged my curiosity. I grew up with the idea that anything could be researched and learned about and a great place that everyone can do that for free is in a library. You can read my entire blog entry here.

One thing I admired about Professor Bloom is that he is an original thinker and he is not afraid to express his opinions. I am not a person to like or not like a person based on various parts of their personality or their character or certain views. Although from what Bloom said I know I have different political opinions and voting records and a different religion I do respect him very much and can’t wait to learn more about him and his views. A main reason is that I agree with so many of his opinions and sometimes I feel so isolated in this crazy world that it is reassuring and exciting to hear someone else saying some of the very things that I think. If that is not proof that I am not nuts then at least it shows I am not alone in this world with some of my ideas and some things that I am disgusted about.

So in any event I now want to read “How To Read And Why” and I’d love to find some of his old speech transcripts and anything else he has to say about books, literature, the importance of reading, the role of real books on education and how a person can be self-educated by doing solitary reading.

And here is my closing paragraph from that old blog post about my childhood library. I think Professor Bloom would approve of and agree with what I said.

What I Want My Children to Know
The most important thing that I want my children to know is that books contain knowledge and ideas and entertainment. Books and other written materials like magazines and newspapers are a window into someone else’s mind and soul. If a person is willing to read and research there are worlds of knowledge and information available to them. A library is a great place to get this information for free, when a person can’t afford to buy every single book that they want. It also lets a person see a variety of what is out there, so they can choose what it is they want to read. The key is to know how to use the library and to feel comfortable going there, and then to actually use it. This is one of the goals for me to teach my children.

Harold Bloom’s Books
Using the credits I earned through the purchases that my blog readers made on Amazon (THANK YOU) I purchased two of Bloom's books: “How to Read and Why” and “The Western Canon”. I actually ordered those before leaving on vacation last month, and my favorite little brown truck delivered them to me while on vacation in Cape Cod. I was able to skim through them and I am very excited about reading some of these books which were never introduced to me in my formal education at public school or college.

Now I'm Getting Educated
My focus for nearly ten years now has been on parenting my children well and on homeschooling them. I feel that now is the time that I start doing more to educate my own self. I am going to make time for reading on a regular basis.

I feel like I am turning a new corner. As my children begin reading to themselves more and more I am reading aloud to them less and less. Although I never want to stop reading aloud to them to be honest I’ve slacked off on that lately. It is not intentional. But I am happy that now when my children want to read something they just pick it up and read it themselves. That is the biggest thing I wanted them to do. So I now have more time to read books to myself.

I have also begun to read “The Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had” by Susan Wise Bauer. Between Bauer’s book and reading Bloom’s recommendations of fantastic works of literature that no person should miss reading I am feeling quite inspired to tackle not just light summer pulp fiction reading but to read some serious works of literature.

Thank you Harold Bloom and Susan Wise Bauer!

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Shawna said...


I love the classics and was absolutely horrified when my 20 year old son came home in high school with a recommended reading list of "crap" (forgive me language) and not one classic lists. And it didn't matter if he did read a classic because it would not count toward his reading assignments. I was shocked, angry, disgusted...and at the time had no idea what to do, so did nothing.

Now, I hope to continue on with the PTA even while homeschooling my 7 year old and bring up the issue. There is too much to be gained from the classic works of literature--and the groups that have issues with words in the works or concepts need to keep them in historical perspective, because many works have been removed due to such groups.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

I have Bloom's book on the Canon, but I think I'm going to have to look for the book on reading. It sounds fantastic.

Sherry said...

LOL I love reading about someone who has more books than I do. I can tell my husband about him in hopes that my dh won't give me "the look" when I say we need more bookshelves!

Thanks for the good read, btw. :-)