One of the books on my Ideal Bookshelf is Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why published in 2000.
Bloom, a profoundly productive and thought-provoking literary critic who at 87 is still active as the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, wrote this book to answer a question that I am frequently asked, why read?
In addition to providing the reader with a roadmap for intelligent reading that covers fiction, both contemporary and classic, short stories, poetry, and plays, Bloom argues that reading is necessary to expand our world. One can only meet, talk with, travel to, and experience so much in one life-time, and reading enables one to expand that experience. If that experience includes the great works of the past and those works of the present that show potential to achieve classic status, one is enriched with wisdom as well as pleasure derived from the beauty of the writing. Of course, one also garners information from reading, a necessity for the well-informed person of the world.
As I’ve read my way through the last decades, other authors have provided additional ‘reasons to read’. I read for pleasure and for connection—connection to authors, to other readers, and between literature and life. These reasons are discussed more fully in the essay, Why Read #1, but now I’d like to review three other author’s ‘reasons to read’.
Mary Oliver’s collection of essays, Upstream, focuses on one such reason: empathy. She says: “The second world—the world of literature—offered me, besides the pleasure of form, the sustentation of empathy…I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything—other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” How beautifully stated—the sustentation of empathy—and how greatly we will all need empathy as we face the daily trials of a nation and world seemingly mad!
Annie Dillard compiled selections from her large oeuvre into the recent volume, The Abundance. In that collection, she focuses on reading’s ability to evoke the mysteries of life in this world, mysteries that infuse our lives with meaning and beauty. “Why are we reading if not in the hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed…Why are we reading if not in the hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaning and will impress upon our minds the deepest mysteries so we may feel again this majesty and power.”
Amoz Oz, the Israeli novelist, offered another new reason to read in his New York Times ‘By the Book’ interview . He said he is moved when a work of literature “suddenly makes the very familiar unfamiliar to me or just the opposite, when a work of literature makes the unfamiliar almost intimately familiar.” What a wonderfully concise framing of reading’s ability to bring something into sharp focus.
So to Harold Bloom’s wisdom, beauty, and information and my pleasure and connection, I can now add the lines from the passionate, nature-based prose of Oliver and Dillard: empathy, life heightening, mystery probing, magnification, dramatization, courage, meaning, majesty and power and Oz’s familiar/unfamiliar diad. That’s why I read!!!!