How to Read and Why is an excellent and interesting book about literature, but the contents have relatively little to do with the title. As I always do when the title is misleading, I rated the book down one star. If the book had a more accurate title (something like How I Enjoy Literature), I would have happily rated the book with five stars.
On the other hand, I am indebted to the title because I might not have read the book otherwise. Because of that benefit, I was tempted to revise my rating to five stars. But I felt a need to be consistent in my grading that may be "the hobgoblin of little minds."
Having avoided all literature classes after high school but having much enjoyed the great literature I have read, I was interested in a book that would expand my ability to perceive and benefit from fine literature. What I found was useful in that regard, but less so than a fuller treatment might have been. Let me explain what is in the book, and then go on to what is not.
This book is organized into five major parts: Short Stories; Poems; Novels, Part I; Plays; and Novels, Part II. The format for each is an introduction about Professor Bloom's choice of literature to consider, then a series of short sections that analyze a few passages from each work, followed by a summary that puts the works into themes and connects those themes to the benefits that a reader may seek.
The major exception is the poetry section which does provide readers with guidance on how to read: On first reading, use an annotated guide to explain the words and the allusions (what I assume he means by mediation); read aloud; reread; memorize; and recite aloud when the poetry strikes you as relevant to the situation or the moment. I suspect that more than poetry would benefit from this approach. Ulysses is a case in point.
In the preface, he encourages us to embrace literature directly in other cases. He is very concerned that the philososphy of the day may divert our attention from the subjective lessons otherwise from within ourselves. He often repeats that written words are more than marks on paper, that the feelings evoked are more important than the things described, and that literature creates the possibility of expanding our ability to communicate and to appreciate. He seems to be a bit discouraged about trends in readership, citing concerns about whether good novels will be able to sustain the necessary audience to support their continuance.
What I found most beneficial about the book were his descriptions of works that I had not read before. I considered it a great treat to learn his views about what he enjoys and why, among all of the vast amounts of literature that he must have read. From this, I was able to locate literary works that I would like to explore. So think of this aspect of the book as being like an outstanding Amazon.com reader review. Except, of course, he has vastly more knowledge and skill at this than do any reviewers I have read on-line.
The second most beneficial part of the book was his creation of themes in literature, as he perceives them. While one may or may not agree with those themes (they are very simple), they certainly do add another element to consider when one reads a given work.
On the works themselves, you may (if you are like me) disagree with his reading in a particular case. That's perfectly fine with him. In fact, reading his interpretations of a passage after developing my own created a sort of mental dialogue between us that I found interesting. If I ever meet Professor Bloom, we would have a great deal to discuss in an enjoyable fashion. In fact, given that this is a popular book, I suggest you read it in part because you can then use it as a Rosetta Stone of sorts to compare your views with others who have also read it. That would be much more enjoyable than most of what people who have just met discuss at cocktail parties.
As Professor Bloom points out, a common theme in literature is the inability of people to communicate to one another . . . because they do not listen.
I have two primary regrets about this book (other than wishing he had included more of his favorite works). One, that Professor Bloom did not personalize the book more. He might have explained how his life's decisions and actions were affected by literature in critical instances. Two, that Professor Bloom ignored other forms of writing such as essays and nonfiction books. I assume he reads both, and I wish to know what he likes and why. In other words, I would wish to know Professor Bloom better through his book. I was attracted to the parts of his personality I became acquainted with and would have liked to have continued the conversation in my mind.
Enjoy this book, be enhanced by remembering the works he describes that you like, and delight in, the works that you will read because you learned more about them here!