Harold Bloom's 4 Rules for Reading

"A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light."

Welcome to today’s issue of Other Life. If you received this from a friend, subscribe here. Quick reminder that our writers’ program is starting its 6th cohort very soon. You can request an invitation here.

We’re currently reading Harold Bloom's expert but popular book, How to Read and Why (2000). The book contains many genre-specific rules of thumb, but four overarching principles that Bloom urges for all reading in general.

They’re worth remembering. Here’s how I take them.

Rule #1: Clear your mind of cant

This idea comes from Samuel Johnson. Discard all pre-existing phrases, categories, and formulas that one is supposed to use, according to the norms and conventions of some group, sect, or institution. One should find one's own words; whichever words most truthfully, clearly, and beautifully express one's own perspective and encounter with the text. Banishing the clichés of others is your first step.

Rule #2: Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neigh­borhood by what or how you read

Serious reading is essentially selfish, anti-social, and elitist. We read to expand, to grow the soul, because we require it—without apologies and without justification. Colleagues once asked the social scientist Max Weber why he read so much, and I've always loved his response. He said, "I want to see how much I can bear." If one reads to help others, one will not read well, which is never any help to anyone. The problem with pro-social reading, in my view, is that one comes to the text with an overconfident conviction that one already knows what one wishes "to do" with the text. This naive arrogance prevents the text from teaching difficult lessons, it precludes that hormesis of the soul often effected by the greatest works. To learn from the masters, one must humbly and unconditionally submit to the masters, at least for the duration of one's first pass through the text. Activist intentions preclude

Rule #3: A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light

This idea comes from Emerson.

If you read selfishly, you will eventually light the way for others, without trying. This point is closely related to the previous point.

Society cannot persist for very long without a certain fraction of genuinely educated individuals. To quit society and study the great works, in pure selfishness, is one of the greatest gifts that one can give to society. Especially today, who is going to perform the task of transmitting the great works to future generations? As Bloom always noted, with admirable candor and pitilessness, the universities abdicated this responsibility well before the year 2000.

Rule #4: One must be an inventor to read well

This point also comes from Emerson.

To be a creative reader is to be a misreader, to bring something original and violent to bear upon the text. I am reminded of Deleuze, who once said, "I saw myself as taking a philosopher from behind and giving him a child; it would be his own offspring, yet monstrous." The only rule, in my view, is that one's creative misreadings must be true—at least to oneself. Whatever one brings to bear, it should testify to, and elaborate, something really there. I add this because it is just too easy to start inventing random misreadings, and the risk is always something pretentiously contrived out of thin air. So long as one is trying one’s best to materialize something one honestly sees, I think this is sufficient constraint. One's reading is never guaranteed to be valuable or compelling merely because it is authentic, but it will never be valuable or compelling if it is not first, at least, authentic.

We’ll be discussing the fine art of reading this Wednesday, July 12 at 11am Central. All welcome, free for members. Seminars are graduate style; observations and questions are expected of all participants. In the second half of the year, we’re reading Plato’s Republic, St. Augustine’s The City of God, and more.

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