To Read or Not to Read – What is the Question?

Rereading Harold Bloom’s 1994 The Western Canon this week. Not shy about speaking his (immensely well stocked) mind, it caused quite a stir at the time. It still does.

His basic question is: with each of us having only one lifetime and with a world of books out there, which ones should we read and how should we read them?

Simple surely? No unfortunately. It never is and it never has been.

WEstern Canon

Going through the chapters I’m struck again by a comment the president of an Irish seminary said to me a few years ago. (I had no affiliation to the institution. I was simply there as a paid consultant). “For a young person to enter religious life now is considered radically counter cultural. It goes completely against the prevailing beliefs of most people in society. But in the 1960s when vocations in Ireland were at their peak, the counter-culture meant Bob Dylan. Now he’s an institution and we’re the ones going against the tide!”

Bear with me on this one. Don’t troll me for seeming to give airtime to a “bigoted” counterview just for a moment.

Bloom was pilloried for advocating a Western Canon of writers composed almost exclusively of dead, white (European) males. Challenging himself to condense the canon to a baker’s dozen he named Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Montaigne, Milton, Goethe, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Kafka and Proust.

dead white males

In this book and throughout his career, Bloom, a Yale professor and son of a garment worker, held firm to the idea that literature should be assessed according to its aesthetic quality rather than its social context. In simple terms – was the writing art good regardless of who wrote it or if it said the “right” things.

A cracking debate on the two fundamental and opposing views of modern literary theory took place in 1999 between Bloom and Professor Jacqueline Rose on Melvyn Bragg’s BBC radio programme, In Our Time. In the latter part of the debate Bloom came across as pompous, patrician (patriarchal?) and, in my view, Rose’s poise and especially her observations on Shakespeare gave her the upper hand.

For Bloom, Shakespeare is undoubtedly at the centre of our western literary canon. But Rose asked which female Shakespearean character, except possible for Portia in The Merchant of Venice, is strong and substantial? Are they not otherwise all accommodating maidens and counterfoils? How do they inform and reflect the experiences she feels as a woman?

All Professor Rose’s points were well made and convincing. But Bloom always held firm to his deep views on literature. He rallied against what he thought was the sinking of real literary studies (“imaginative literature”) into the morass of “cultural studies” departments. Bloom contented that “great literature will insist upon its self-sufficiency in the face of the worthiest causes: feminism, African-American culturalism, and all the other politically correct enterprises of our moment.” Every great writer is a law onto him/herself and “is out for himself alone and will frequently betray or neglect his class in order to advance his own interests, which center entirely upon individualisation”. 


These observations will strike home for anyone who has studied English in college in the last 30 years. I recall one of those endless undergraduate lectures on literary theory and the moment my young heart sank like a stone. This was just before The Western Canon was published. Was the dreary theory lecture on structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism, French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction or formalism? I really don’t remember. But I do remember the “moment of truth”. “You know” the chirpy lecturer informed us “for a deconstructionist critic Shakespeare and a superman comic are of equal literary quality and value. It’s all just a question of how you approach the analysis”.

So what’s was the point? What was I studying? Was it an academic’s PhD thesis or was it the writing of a great mind and original artist. Did I care unduly if the writer was of a certain colour, nationality or background?

Every year interest in studying Arts in Irish universities declines. What is it that will fan the flame of interest in books among young students? In the opening chapter of the Western Canon Bloom states “we are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice”.

Do the universities offer students the opportunity to really develop authenticity, creativity, independent-thought and critical expression – all attributes seen by even the most hard-nosed careerists as essential in today’s lives. Do schools and universities provide a place for the study of the life-enhancing humanities or is it just social theory?

As a parent or teacher, how can we inspire a child to read and learn with curiosity? It’s not easy. Especially as Bloom contented that to grasp the Western Canon in a meaningful way would involve the reading, rereading and contemplation of more than 3,000 books – something all but impossible in one lifetime. (In many ways I’m old-school and I consider myself well read. And I’ve still only managed about half of that number).

We live in a fraught age when literature can help us so much in our personal and professional lives. But with each screaming headline prompting anger, indignation and anxiety and social media gobbling us our every waking hour, where is the physical and head-space to read?

So let’s go back to the basic question. Why would a young person read and re-read? Is it not, as it has always been, for the story? And then for its writing quality and artistic originally? (Something once called “aesthetic quality”. Something, for example, abounding in a book like Wuthering Heights.)

Bloom died only a few months ago – in October 2019. But maybe the old curmudgeon might have had a important point to make to us after all?

Read him yourself. Then you decide.


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