Category: impressions

Brief Thoughts on Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

I just finished listening to the audiobook version Harold Bloom’s 2001 book, How to Read and Why. I often enjoy books about books, and since I’m occasionally asked for advice on how to jump into literature and Bloom seems to be a well-respected writer, I thought it’d be worth giving a shot. Overall, it’s good and I’d recommend it, but with some conditions and, for most people, not before a couple other works in the genre.

The main part of the book goes through various representative works in poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, with Bloom outlining some of the main structural and thematic points, and discussing the value of the work and author in question. Most of this is fairly standard literary criticism, but Bloom is clearly very well read, thoughtful, and engaging. The selection is, overall, rather conservative, which is fine. It’s hard to go wrong with Austen, Hemingway, Wordsworth, and Faulkner, for instance. His selection is weighted toward English literature and Shakespeare is the oldest author included; this excludes a great deal of foundational Western literature, but since How to Read and Why is targeted to beginners, it is reasonable to focus on well-known, easily available works, and avoid the potentially sticky issue of translation. I haven’t read many of the works included, but the only one I’d object to is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the only “affirmative action” selection, despite Bloom’s praise for the book.

One thing I especially appreciate about Bloom is his dismissal of academic fads, the idea that authors must be political activists, and the like. He writes in the Introduction:

Ultimately we read – as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree – in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. We experience such augmentations as pleasure, which may be why aesthetic values have alwasy been deprecated by social moralists, from Plato through our current campus Puritans. The pleasures of reading are selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.

Accordingly, Bloom takes each author on the author’s own terms, avoiding reading modern fashions into the texts, and focuses on what each author offers to the reader as an individual.

That’s all well and good, and Bloom so far sounds broadly Conservative. However, one quickly gets the impression that he’s simply a Liberal who’s been left behind as the rest of the Left moves forward faster than he has. For example, he has the silly habit of using “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun, and when discussing romantic relationships between characters feels it necessary to specify “heterosexual.” Also, though I don’t think he’s a Freudian, he still talks about sexuality in a way that makes me suspect that the discredited psychologist is lurking around somewhere.

Also, he offers a number of opinions that I’m reluctant to criticise at any length, not having read his full arguments, but that are, frankly, rather dubious. One of the more famous examples is his assertion that William Shakespeare “invented the human,” as we now think of humans. He discusses this in depth in another book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, but I find it hard to believe that this work would reward the time I put into it (though I am open to recommendations).

Finally, the audiobook is narrated by John McDonough, who does well and navigates the proper pronunciation of international authors’ names admirably (at least, as far as I can judge such things).

So, is How to Read and Why worth picking up? There are certainly benefits to it, especially for those looking to get started with a serious study of literature but want something less dry and systematic than Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, or less idiosyncratic and specific to poetry than Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. I prefer these latter two, and Adler and van Doren will still be my go-to recommendation, but Bloom will do just fine for a more casual starting-point.…

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Fourth Friend: John Milton, “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent”

If you’ve been on social media for any significant length of time, you’ve probably seen a meme purporting to show books typical for each of the three major branches of Christianity. For Catholicism, it has Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, for Eastern Orthodoxy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and for Protestantism, Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You. It’s funny, yes, but it also annoys me a little. For one thing, though I hate heresy and consider their revolt against the Church the greatest catastrophe of the past several centuries, I do have some sympathy for Protestants. I live in the American South, after all, which despite a significant Catholic presence is still a fundamentally Protestant place. Many of my friends belong to one of those denominations, and when I think of Protestants I first think, not of the despicable Luther and Calvin or the dopey Osteen, but of my Baptist grandfather, who in the last decade or so of his life approached his church with full sincerity, and collected an impressive library of different editions and translations of Scripture, comparing each and considering the commentaries of various theologians.

Also, it offends my sense of fairness, because there have been many great works of Protestant literature. I don’t think any come to the level of The Divine Comedy, but Protestants can claim no lesser artists than Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Donne, and indeed most great English authors from the Elizabethan era onward. Bl. John Henry Newman went so far as to say that the English literary tradition is fundamentally Protestant. Now, that was already debatable when he said it in the 1852, and it has become even more so since then, but I ultimately do agree with him and it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some truth to it.

Read More Fourth Friend: John Milton, “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent”

Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

When writing about Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I mentioned that Edgar Allan Poe is an unusual member of the literary canon because of the types of stories he wrote, mostly horror. When thinking of comparable works, two come to mind right away. One is Dracula, by Bram Stoker. However, though Stoker’s vampire might be the most famous icon in horror, his work seems most influential in pop culture, rather than literature. Also, the novel kinda sucks (er, no pun intended). It reaches a climax too early, and was written in the horrid epistolary format, a style that has long since gone out of style, and good riddance.

Dracula’s only competitor for greatest horror icon is Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster, which brings us to a second work comparable to Poe, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. Again, it’s most influential in pop culture, so much so that just as it’s hard to think of Dracula without thinking of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, it’s hard to think of Frankenstein without imagining Colin Clive or Peter Cushing, or the monster apart from Boris Karloff. In literature, it’s an early prototype of both horror and science fiction; not exactly the most respected genres, but nonetheless, certainly worth something. It’s also very much in the Romantic mode, which may be a strength or a weakness, depending on the reader’s taste for melodrama. Most importantly, though, unlike Dracula it’s a genuinely good novel.

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New at Thermidor: The Book of Documents

I have another new post up at Thermidor Magazine, covering the Confucian classic, the Book of Documents, which includes a discussion of the Confucian approach to history, as well as a few comments on the Confucian-derived Neoreactionary slogan, “Become worthy. Accept power. Rule.”

Those wanting to read more about Confucianism may be interested in a few other articles I’ve written previously, covering the Book of Odes, Mencius, Leonard Lyall’s translation of the Analects of Confucius, and Xinzhong Yao’s Introduction to Confucianism.…

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A Short Review of The Last Unicorn

After watching The Hobbit, I thought it would be worth watching some more of Rankin/Bass’s films, and initially planned on moving on to The Return of the King next (on my own schedule, which some would call extremely slow but which I prefer to think of as simply a stately pace). At a friend’s insistence, though, I skipped ahead a bit and watched The Last Unicorn, their adaptation of Peter Beagle’s novel of the same title from 1982. Since a couple of people have expressed interest in hearing about it, I figured I’d go ahead and share a few brief thoughts on the movie here.

First, the film has a mythic feeling to it, which I appreciate. The movie opens with moving the camera through a dense forest, and the opening credits are done in a style that mimics illuminated manuscripts, in a manner that reminds me of some of Disney’s “storybook openings,” like Sleeping Beauty or Sword in the Stone, or a less elaborate version of the opening myth section of Watership Down. You can take a look for yourself on YouTube. Two hunters complain of not finding any game, and the older of the two surmises that it must be because of a unicorn’s presence, which would also explain why it’s always springtime there. The younger is incredulous, but the old man is, of course, correct, and they leave the forest as he shouts good wishes to the unicorn, as she is the last of her kind. Our equine protagonist hears this and is troubled by the possibility, and sets out to find out if this is true, and to learn what became of the others.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Protagoras

Crito’s attempt to save Socrates has failed, so now we’ll go back and begin working through Plato’s dialogues from earlier in his life. First up are some discussions with various sophists, beginning with Protagoras.

This dialogue begins with a somewhat odd framing device; a friend meets Socrates walking through the city, and learns that he’s just come from speaking with Protagoras, who has recently arrived in Athens to work as a teacher. So, the rest of the work is Socrates recounting the meeting, so there’s a double narration going on, and the frame is never closed. I’m sure there’s been discussion enough of why the dialogue is structured this way, but I could only guess.

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Going After Cacciato

After writing about Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, Sam Stevens (whose own novel Lone Crusader I reviewed earlier this year) recommended that I also check out another of O’Brien’s novels, Going After Cacciato. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I got a copy of the audiobook edition expecting another war novel along the lines of The Things They Carried.

I was about half-right. It’s partly a war novel, and partly a modern version of Around the World in Eighty Days.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Crito

To the sorrow of all of his friends and students, us included, Socrates has been condemned, and normally would have been executed shortly after the trial. However, a state galley had been sent on a sacred mission at about the same time and no executions could be carried out until it returned, so instead he sat in a jail cell for almost a month. Shortly before its return, Crito, one of Socrates’ students, came to visit his teacher to say that he expected the ship to return soon, but that he could easily help Socrates escape by placing a few bribes. Socrates, though, always true to form, doesn’t jump at this chance to save himself, but instead insisted on discussing whether this would truly be the right thing to do.…

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Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises by Xenophon

It may be hard to tell since I didn’t really review it, but I loved Anabasis enough that I was eager to read more from Xenophon right after finishing it. He’s one of the fortunate Classical authors to have had many of his works survive to the present day, so there’s plenty to choose from. His Socratic dialogues seemed like an obvious next step, but I’ve decided to put that on hold until I finish Plato’s. In the meantime, I noticed that Robin Waterfield, who did the excellent translations for AnabasisThe Histories, and The First Philosophers, has translated a collection of his shorter works, published by Penguin Books as Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises.

The first work, which gives its title to the collection, is a dialogue between Hiero, the ruler of Sicilian Syracuse  from 478-467 B.C., and an advisor, Simonides, on happiness and whether a tyrant is happier than common people. On the surface, it would seem that tyrants must be, since obviously all of their appetites can easily be fulfilled. If you’ve read much didactic literature, though, you can guess that it’s not so simple, and Hiero points out several areas where tyrants are, in fact, less happy than their citizens. For example, Hiero may be able to feast daily on delicacies that commoners only get at festivals and special occasions, but, he says, “If there’s no novelty for a person in having a sumptuous and varied diet, he doesn’t fancy anything he is offered; it is the person for whom something is a rare treat who eats his fill with delight when it is served up to him.” This is why tyrants like himself often request strongly flavoured food, even though, in his own words, “for an appetite to crave that kind of food it would have to be effete and debilitated, don’t you think? I mean, you know as well as I that people who enjoy their food have no need of such contrivances.” So, a tyrant may have access to all the material comforts he desires, but soon finds no joy in them and must go on a search for ever increasing novelty.…

Read More Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises by Xenophon

New at Thermidor: The Things They Carried

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, reviewing Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, a collection of closely related short stories about his experience in the Vietnam War. It is my favourite war novel, and one of my favourite works of fiction generally. It’s even rather new by my standards, published in 1990, within my lifetime! Well, I was a small child at the time, but still. In my review of Lone Crusader, a new work by any standard, I quoted C. S. Lewis’s famous advice, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” My general rule is that a “new” book for this purpose is “written within one’s own lifetime.” Cicero said that “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever,” so the goal here is to avoid being temporally parochial-minded.

In any case, I’ve had a backlog of reviews to write, and I’m almost caught up. Next up will be a collection of treatises by Xenophon, after which I’ll start preparing for a Very Special Episode next month, which contains a momentous landmark for Everything is Oll Korrect!

Read More New at Thermidor: The Things They Carried