Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of all pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.
Terry Eagleton--basically England's Harold Bloom--notes in his remarkably negative review that "[i]t sounds as though Harold is a bit short of mates and reads to make up for it." With all due respect to the achievements of Prof. Eagleton, such a statement reeks of petty snark and, worse yet, of intellectual dishonesty. Loneliness is the undiscussed companion of the human condition and if you do not feel at least a little bit like Prof. Bloom does, then I simply don't understand you.
With the why out of the way, Bloom turns to the how in the 200-odd pages that follow, and it is here that Eagleton's criticisms have some bearing. Bloom divides his book into five sections, one each for short stories, poetry, and drama, and two for the novel, and within each section he briefly treats five to six major authors or works. Each gives the impression of being somewhat less than Bloom has to offer; while the section on Keats may serve as a passable introduction to the poet and enlightens us as to why Bloom treasures "Le Belle Dame sans Merci," it fails to break free from Bloom's solipsism. Despite Bloom's notions that we should be forever reading the best literature available to us, knowing how to read Keats is not the same thing as knowing how to read; knowing how to read Keats exactly like Harold Bloom is more distant still. Furthermore, the meager selections of works suggest no reason for their being included together, and while Bloom tosses superlatives around with impunity (there is no "higher aesthetic achievement by a twentieth-century American writer than As I Lay Dying," no greater book by a living American than Blood Meridian, no greater book by an American black than Invisible Man), their ubiquity drains them of power and it is hard to shake the feeling that the works have been selected, not for their greatness, but by whim.
One notable exception to this piecemeal feeling is the final chapter, on the American novel since Melville, in which Bloom articulates an affinity among seven novels: Moby-Dick, As I Lay Dying, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Crying of Lot 49, Invisible Man, Blood Meridian, and Song of Solomon. These novels all express a "negative sublimity," a horrific transcendence in the tradition of Moby-Dick and a uniquely American and apocalyptic vision:
It is not the function of reading to cheer us up, or to console us prematurely. But I conclude by affirming that all of these American visions of the End of our Time offer us more, much more, than their cleansing negativity... There are survivors among these: Ishmael, Oedipa, Invisible Man. Why read? Because you will be haunted by great visions: of Ishmael, escaped alone to tell us; of Oedipa Maas, cradling the old derelict in her arms, of Invisible Man, preparing to come up again, like Jonah, out of the whale's belly. All of them, on some of the higher frequencies, speak to you and for you.
This, unsurprisingly, does not meet Terry Eagleton's expectations of serious criticism, and though my expectations were quite different it did not quite meet them, either. But to read Bloom is to be in the presence of someone who truly loves reading; I hope that one day I should love my own children as much as Bloom loves books. There is little concrete advice in How to Read and Why, but I do find that it inspires me to find something in books that speaks to me as loudly as these works speak to him. Insofar as the success of How to Read and Why is encountering another soul with its unique passions, a literary fellow traveler, it fails as literary criticism but succeeds as something of sister text to the books it idolizes, alleviating a trace of human loneliness.