Review: The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages - Harold Bloom

4/5 stars


Harold Bloom really is a cantankerous old thing, so hard to please and yet so seemingly pleased with himself. I actually enjoy reading Bloom, if only because I like arguing with him in my head. He makes plenty of good points in this massive exploration of Literature with a capital "L," but he also highlights many of the reasons the "dead white male" pantheon persists, and why he thinks it should. Many of his arguments are in complete opposition to the idea of diversity in literature that I hold near and dear, and his lack of faith in the future of great writing is, I think, short sighted and elitist.

The concept of escapist reading completely, well, escapes him. To think that someone may read a book to enjoy the stories or the characters without making any life-shattering discoveries concerning human nature and the complexities of existence is nearly blasphemous. Yes, Shakespeare is great, but I would really love it if Bloom could pull his head out of the Bard's ass for five minutes. To Bloom, reading for pure enjoyment is a waste of time, and is a regrettable condition into which our once-literate society has fallen. Never mind the issues of class and race that have stilted literature in favor of the few; he dismisses it off-hand and condemns those that adhere to the belief in the possibility of literary equality. He makes some grudging concessions for Jane Austen, but that's where his open-mindedness ends. Sure, few works can compare to The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost, or nearly anything by his beloved Shakespeare in terms of complexity or even universality, but why is this the only measure of greatness? He'll tell you why, but it's too long winded for me to summarize here.

Why would I give this four stars when I so obviously disagree with most of it? Easy: it is not necessary to agree with something to appreciate it. Bloom is a vastly well-read scholar, with troves of knowledge and a great deal of experience under his belt. All of those Bloom's Guides to (insert classic work here) that helped you get through your high school/college reading lists? He wrote them, and there must be more than a hundred by now. Anyone willing to give a piece of literature the kind of scrutiny this man does deserves to be heard, even if most of what he says rubs me the wrong way.