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Reading is Selfish, Elitist, and Anti-Social

Reflections on Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why (2000)

Welcome to today’s issue of Other Life, a newsletter dedicated to the greatest books and most interesting writers in history. If you received this from a friend, subscribe for yourself here.

Nota bene: The next cohort of our independent writers program will start on July 17. Request an invitation here.

With a nearly photographic memory and a reading speed of 1,000 pages per hour (at his peak), Harold Bloom was the single most impressive literary critic of the late twentieth century.

What I love the most about his work is that he combined the best elements of humanism with a brutal honesty that often verged on explicit elitism. He always ultimately reverts to a polite liberalism, of the good old kind, but he was viciously opposed to the race and gender crusades, and from our perspective today he now reads as provocatively aristocratic.

We are driven to serious reading by deeply human impulses—”because we cannot know enough people, deeply enough", he once said in an interview—but the fact is that we always read alone.

To read is to love the human so much that one cannot be bothered with humans as they exist today.

For Bloom, reading is structurally individualist, anarchist, and anti-social.

"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 always been deprecated by social moralists, from Plato through our current campus Puritans. The pleasures of reading indeed 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."

Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why

Only you can decide how you wish to read, given your unique interests, needs, desires, and contextual factors. This should not be mistaken with epistemological or aesthetic relativism. Excellent writing is excellent for all humans, but how to approach, interpret, understand, or make use of any given writing is essentially personal, subjective, and creative.

Bloom goes further. Any attempt at a social organization of serious reading, today, "can only be performed by some version of elitism."

"A childhood largely spent watching television yields to an adolescence with a com­puter, and the university receives a student unlikely to welcome the suggestion that we must endure our going hence even as our going hither: ripeness is all. Reading falls apart, and much of the self scatters with it. All this is past lamenting, and will not be reme­died by any vows or programs. What is to be done can only be per­formed by some version of elitism, and that is now unacceptable, for reasons both good and bad. There are still solitary readers, young and old, everywhere, even in the universities. If there is a function of criticism at the present time, it must be to address itself to the solitary reader, who reads for herself, and not for the inter­ests that supposedly transcend the self." [Emphasis mine.]

Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why

A return to serious reading today is an “elitist” venture not because serious reading is necessarily reactionary or elitist, but because the twentieth-century attempt at the democratization of knowledge failed. So long as it was still possible to pretend that mass education would bring the insights and pleasures of Shakespeare to every human alive, it was acceptable to express love for Shakespeare. Now that the impossibility of mass higher education is "past lamenting" (and that was twenty years ago!), to express love for Shakespeare—let alone conduct a serious study of Shakespeare—cannot but appear dangerous. And perhaps it is!

To conduct, in all sincerity, a study of Shakespeare, today, merely for personal edification, is to take for oneself knowledge, which, it turns out, cannot and will not be taken or absorbed by most people. Even when that knowledge is freely available and the government spends great sums of money in the attempt to spread that knowledge.

Bloom disavows explicit elitism, as a liberal humanist of the good old kind must, but in our more advanced digital era, I must say that I lack Bloom’s scruples. “Pro-elitism” would be a ridiculous posture, no doubt, but so are Bloom’s scruples, in the current moment. It is now trivial to organize any number of activities among a select type of person distributed around the world. Such activities can be low-status or high-status, vulgar or sophisticated, it doesn’t really matter: All are essentially opaque to everyone on the outside of the circle in which they are organized.

Nothing redounds to a Great Center anymore, for good or for ill. Everyone should aspire to elite status in a chosen domain, and all should hope that elite quality reigns in all domains. There is no social aggregate to bargain over anymore, no central political sphere that forces a responsible author to pay lip service to democracy on the one hand, and elite quality on the other, as a kind of citizen’s duty to balance competing values for a general public. All that matters, in the decentralized digital world, is to actualize elite quality to the best of one’s ability. Money, status, and reproduction follow (hopefully). Everything else withers (probably).

Had Bloom himself sought to organize an educational return to the canon, outside of, or in opposition to, mainstream educational institutions, to pearl-clutching onlookers it very well could have had the vague whiff of a beer hall in Munich. Today, it can just be another private community on the internet, no more or less significant than any other, from the outside looking in.


We are meeting to discuss Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why on July 12 at 11am Central. All seminars are free for dues-paying members committed to reading the great books in a community of peers. Members also receive the bi-annual print edition of Other Life, among other things. You can become a member here.