Thoughts on “The Western Canon” by Harold Bloom

This is one of those books which was an impulse buy over 20 years ago, which I bought while wandering the aisles of a Borders Bookstore (that should put things into perspective). It has sat on my shelf all this time, waiting to be read, and I finally got around to it. One of the benefits of COVID for book nerds is that it forces us to read what we have and not wander aimlessly in search of more books.

While I was in college, Professor Bloom came and held a lecture at the community college I was attending; quite a coup for a small campus to get a speaker of his eminence. Very few people attended, but I of course showed up early and got to sit with him and have a one-on-one discussion about literature. His knowledge was formidable, to say the least.

In this book, Prof. Bloom addresses what he sees as a dilemma for readers: “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?” (p. 15) He strives to answer this question by focusing on 26 writers that he feels are representative of the 3 key ages of literature: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, and the Chaotic Age. Understandably, Bloom places Shakespeare at the center of the canon, arguing that all writers who followed Shakespeare are either influenced by his work, or seek to distinguish themselves by trying to contradict his work. He makes a good argument, and as a Shakespeare buff, I am OK placing Shakespeare at the center of a literary canon.

Since this book is essentially literary criticism, it is probably not something a casual pleasure reader would find enjoyable to read; but if one is a lit-nerd, such as myself, it becomes easy to get absorbed into the pages of this book. But again, as Bloom points out in the beginning of the book, it causes one to ask: What else should I read in my limited time here on Earth? I already had a “to-be-read” list that I could never complete, and after reading Blooms book, that list has grown three-fold. But at least I had the satisfaction of having read a good number of books which he references. That gave me a little boost.

Although Bloom was an eminent literary scholar, he stresses that this book is not intended for academics.

This book is not directed to academics, because only a small remnant of them still read for the love of reading. What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.

(p. 518)

If you are a deep lover of literature, then you may want to give this book a read, or at least refer to the long list of books and writers at the end which Bloom considers canonical (I believe you can find the list on the internet). While I may not agree with all of his choices, it is a good list of stuff to choose from.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you find lots of books to interest and inspire you.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Thoughts on “The Western Canon” by Harold Bloom

  1. You’re right about Covid and wanting to read more Jeff. I currently have a few books on the go that I will be posting next month. I got them for Xmas and since I’m off for a few weeks I have been digging in.
    Cheers Bro

  2. Jim Barton

    I attended school at a politically correct college in the throes of post-modernist deconstruction. In addition, but related, there was an emphasis on the recently written. It was only after I graduated that I realized that instead of reading heavily from books written in the last ten years, one should read heavily from books written BEFORE that.

    So even as Bloom and his kindred made me nervous in their conservatism, I grant them this– it’s better to dig into the excellent canon, rather than the mediocre recent.

    • Hi Jim. Hope you are well. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, Bloom and Co were definitely criticized for their promotion of the canon, but I guess there is a reason why people still read Dante and Shakespeare. For me, I like a balance: some current and some classic. Hope you have a great new year. Stay safe.

  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Well, a fascinating and absolutely lengthy list which could understandably convert anyone to intensive analysis of short passages. I certainly wish I had read the Classics in greater depth years ago- esp. Greek drama. The few books that I have managed in French and German have become memorable. Interesting, that you met Bloom and I wonder how you might update the canon?

    • Yeah, I agree with most of Bloom’s list, but I wonder why he put more emphasis on Freud and basically ignores Jung. Also, I did not notice any of the neoplatonic writers like Plotinus. Umberto Eco is also absent, and I would consider him to be canonical. But that’s me 😉

      Anyway, thanks for the reblog, and I hope you have a wonderful book-filled 2021. Cheers!