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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Critic Harold Bloom’s Ways-of-Seeing Literature

I first came across Harold Bloom’s prose in the early 1980s, as an undergrad at Illinois State University. Back then, of course, there was no easily-found information source (let’s call it “The Web” and be happy for it). Nevertheless, we college students had card catalogs, big-ass-long book-stacks, and lots of magazines on display shelves. I found Bloom’s not-yet-so-fleshy mug on the cover of a literary magazine. The title read something like, “Against the Fashion” or some-such polemic. Bloom himself might have titled it “Against the Literary Fascists” because, even then, he was against The Establishment’s ever-and-more-quickly-changing fashions of literary criticism.

Jump ahead a decade. I read The Paris Review’s ART OF CRITICISM interview, featuring Harold Bloom, who had a lot to say about “deep reading” and a shorter invective against the increasingly changing normative, and university-based, critical investigation approach to literature. The latter he expanded upon in his widely read “The Weston Canon” in which he lambasted 25 years of university-based teacher-critics who had found numerous ways-of-seeing literature, among them Historicism, Feminism, Gay-studies, Deconstructionism, Marxism, Freudianism, and Multi-culturalism.

What Bloom objected to, and I agreed with him as a 19 year old and 25 year old — and still do at 51 — was the slicing and dicing of story, character, language, and the subjectivising of writerly intent to fit these newly minted categories of literary study. Bloom stated that all of these took away from the beauty of the English language, the beauty of the stories, the deep-seated psychology of the characters (not Freud’s psychology, but Shakespearean), and the nature of literature itself: to investigate the human condition.

He asked the obvious questions: Who cares when a story/poem was written (it’s beauty rings because of the times, not within those times)? What difference does the beauty, or beauty-of-the-grotesque, have to do with gender or a writer’s “gay-ness”? And, given that we humans always-always-always act on a psychological razor’s edge, what’s the point of looking into that (especially when Shakespeare not only outlined them for us but color co-ordinated the good & bad of it all)? Finally, does the fact that a person’s “color” should be in any way incumbent on its inclusion into one’s reading list? Bloom’s answers to these questions were definitive: truth, beauty, and quality made the difference, and nothing which falls below these standards should take up our valuable reading time.

Today, Historicism & Feminism & (subsequently) Gender Studies & Freudianism … and all the rest … have fallen away. What remains, and is again hailed as the single best mode to read any book or story, is DEEP READING; that which compels you into the story, along through the characters’ plight, effort, and resolution, and what the sum total you are left with at the conclusion. And, I might ask, Isn’t this what book clubs have been doing for the better part of a century?

I think that what makes Bloom’s classic ideas of literary study worthy of all our attention, is that he approaches “story” with an idiosyncratic attention to what he reads off the page. To wit: what we bring to the page determines what we understand of the characters. What we “miss” in our over- or under-attention to characters and language makes such understanding all the more poignant, particularly on the second and third readings of these stories/novels/poems.

Now Bloom has come out with a new book, THE DEAEMON KNOWS, wherein he revisits the Romantic poets whom he had fallen for as a youth and young scholar, but who had almost disappeared under the attack of that “deamon-minded” T.S. Eliot, the conservative and anti-Semitic scourge of American & British letters through the first half of the 20th Century. But Bloom was unperturbed by Eliot, and his early years at Yale brought him all the battle that he might have been asking for.

Today those Romantics — Blake, Shelley, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop — are widely read in and out of the university classroom. So to are Whitman, Emerson, Hart Crane, Melville, and others. Bloom wrote about these, and many other, American and British authors who had made such an impression on him. “Bloom is a personal and passionate reader who prizes the face-to-face. For him reading resembles falling in love: The author who chooses you turns you inside out, making the world look utterly new and strange.” (from “The Deamon in Mr Bloom” at Tablet).

Such language must come from a romantic. Harold Bloom was and, at 84, still is a ROMANTIC. This is as much as can be asked of someone who has a love for words, and love of literature, that great artistic essay that unveils the human spirit through every age and decade wherein it can be found.


My newest novel is “Max, the blind guy” — the story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. This new novel will be published on June 5, 2015 from Siren & Muse Publishing. Read an excerpt here that you won’t find at on-line bookshops.

What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Books … I mean the ones with pages.

Penguin Hardcover Classics have them. So do Collector’s Library. Yes, they have 20th-Century classics and lots of literature going back to ancient texts. Yes, all of those books that you can find free on line, download to your e-reader of choice, and never worry about packing real books in real boxes the next time you move.

Yet what is Book Culture without books? The virtual book, in my mind, doesn’t count. You can’t turn its pages; you certainly can’t smell the ink and paper. You can’t make marginal notes. You can’t design a bookshelf and fill it with books whose spines are colorful, designerly, and have printed titles, and be of various sizes and thicknesses. Now that’s a book!

This is what Penguin and Collector’s and other publishers of fine hardback & clothbound books have realized: there are plenty of people out there that like the physical book. And they’ll always like them. And they’ll pay money for a beautiful edition.

Penguin Classics have various colors, with stamp-printed designs, and complementary colored endpapers; many have illustrations, because Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and the old fairy tales printers used illustrators’ woodcuts to make these stories come alive ever more. Proust’s Rechercher du Temps Perdu (In Search of Time Lost) comes in three volumes, each a vivid color, a good size for the hand, a volume that makes art on the bookshelf, as much as it holds between the covers. Dickens’s David Copperfield has a chocolate cover, with cream kites as in the sky, printed on its cover front and back.

The Collector’s Library editions are traditional maroon cloth, though newer editions are powder blue (a bit of an odd editorial/sales choice, as it sometime feels as if I’m reading from a child’s prayer book — hardly the effect I sought while reading of a Hemingway character having sex in the outdoors with his paramour under a woolen blanket). They are truly palm size volumes, and fit in most jacket pockets. Perfect for traveling, or being out and about on public trans.

I conceded the flexibility that e-readers offer the consumer. But where is the humanity from yet another robot? Don’t we stare at pixelated type and video screens all day long, and all too much? The book is civilization. The book is humanity. A book brings people together. I bet you haven’t heard much of, “Oh, I love the cover of your e-reader!”

Books Read Lately: love, punishment, philosophy


The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

Written between 1934-37 in Berlin, Nabokov elucidates the German mentality via a young Russian émigré, full of spirit, poetry, love, and wonder (along with a lot of memories of his father’s long absences to collect butterflies and moths around the world). The young man’s desire to write about beauty in the world, and his love for Zina (his landlady’s daughter) keeps him from losing his mind in a world not his own, or even of his choosing. Nabokov is honing the wit in this story that he shows so brilliantly in later novels.


The Punisher’s Brain by R. Hoffman

Where does our penchant for punishment, forgiveness, and revenge come from? Societal convention, or somewhere deeper within the psyche? Trial judge Hoffman explores these questions from several vantage points, each stemming from brain functions that, over 100,000 years ago, designed our minds to cheat, find other cheaters, and punish the members of our tribe (not to mention outsiders!).


The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch

A large group of former Oxford grads are in various stages of stasis, growth, decline, and mental anguish as they approach middle age. One man is the central point of solidity: David Crimond is a brilliant thinker who has been working on a book for 25 years (or more!) that will reposition political thought and argument. But the coterie that has funded his ability to think & write all these years without encumbrance, has some questions. Meanwhile, hearts are afire. Iris Murdoch delivers some great dialogue about modern society and how it all may end (or end up).



“Max, the blind guy” is a story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. The manuscript is now out with agents; it may be in print as early as December 2014.

What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.



New Year’s Book Total — 2013 Reads

The year 2013 was good for many things, and books also, but not for total books read. At least, not according to my standards. Lots of reasons can be sited, but none particularly worthy of the let-down. I had time, and while not having wasted it, made use of those minutes and hours for other — equally important — passions: food, travel, writing work, loving, thinking.

Yet I did read some good books in 2013, some of them having big page-counts. The statistics hold up well:

22 books read

7,924 pages

3,317,125 approx. words


So without anymore fanfare nor excuses, her is my list, in chronological order:

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Tunc by Lawrence Durrell

2666 by Roberto Bolano

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

Nunquam by Lawrence Durrell

In the Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

 Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Cordial & Corrosive by Sophie Hannah

Letting Go by Philip Roth

Bleeding Edge by Pynchon (suck!)

Operation Shylock by Philip Roth

The Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Aligheri

The Night Train by Carl Purdon

Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson

Darkness Visible by William Golding

Under the Autumn Star by Knut Hamson

Max, the blind guy by Mark Beyer (pub 2014)


I shan’t give my faves, though you all must understand, I don’t read bad books (ie. anything with vampires, zombies, or sentimental love, and, NO, I am not sorry for that). Please tell me, on FB or in the comments below, what you’ve read, your list, your stats, or just your faves.

Happy New Year!

Couples Reading

I’ve started reading Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” (1992) and Asia is into the late first-quarter of Roth’s “Letting Go” (1961). This is not a battle, and we refrain from trading quotes (even though I recently re-read LG). Roth’s books, for us, are dense with human feeling and psychology, not to mention many beautiful sentences and ways of describing small parts of life we all know but often overlook. These happen on every page, at least once.

Sometimes we’ve read the same book, but not at the same time (no point in owning twin copies, considering the number of books now collected). When we do this, the person who’s already finished the book often asks the present reader “Where are you now?” or “What’s happening to …?” with that anticipation and look of the dramatic irony even the characters in the book can’t match. But we never ask “Haven’t you gotten to the part about …?” We’re ultra sensitive to never giving away what’s to come, even the smallest moment, or snatch of dialogue. This has been 99% successful.

Couples who read together love together. Before reading time begins, there’s some short chat to set the excitement level; after our couple’s reading has run its allotted time, a recap of emotions and character traits, or “what it all means” lets out the anxiety of what’s been discovered. I use “anxiety” because reading Roth — or any strong writer — is a time spent in media dramatica and sometimes one simply needs to get out of that world and into your own. Few enough authors do this to us on the level Roth is capable of inducing. The tension his characters create is incredibly real. You hate them, pity them, envy their audacity, despise their stupidity, and laugh with them. Seldom do you want to laugh at them; they are that real in their conflict, and only a jerk laughs at people for that.

We haven’t owned a television since coming together, and neither of us watched that thing for years before our coupling. There’s something stronger in a relationship that has books over television; I truly believe this. Because, while both mediums keep you occupied solo, the wealth of conversation that can be mined from books far outweighs whatever appears on television. Even the good TV programs have only so much in-depth-ness to them; their lack of individual character mental introspection leaves too much left untold. That’s the true failure of television, or even theater. Only Shakespeare’s drama can get away with soliloquies anymore.

Roth has stopped writing novels. Fortunately, I’ve not read all that he’s written. But almost. Yet there are other books of his that I haven’t read in ten years, or even twenty. Their impression stays with me like embossed paper; but re-reading good literature is essential, one of the true ways we pull more and ever greater pleasure from the human experience. Roth wrote more than 25 books, which makes for a good library if one only has a single author’s complete works to take with him on a desert island.

Or to take with you into your living room, where your mate is already on the couch curled up with her book, saving a spot for you under the blanket.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

One Problem w/Art Interpretation Is…

In the 10 Oct 2013 issue of the London Review of Books, Hal Foster (Princeton Art Dept chair) has reviewed Jacques Ranciere’s latest critique of society’s aesthetic nature, “Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art” with many quotes, and lots of great things to say about Ranciere’s approach to criticism. Foster uses eloquent language to evoke the pathos of Ranciere’s not so eloquent language (certainly eloquent if you enjoy reading philosophy tracts; not so for the reader who wants clear, effective prose).

The problem I have with Ranciere is not his ideas, but the method in which his prose expostulates the ideas. Many examples are cited by Foster, but the one that sticks out for me comes during a discussion of Chaplin, Vertov, and the photography of “the Stieglitz circle”:

In each instance Ranciere finds the imperatives of the aesthetic and the mundane at work together: … and with Stieglitz “the objectivity of photography … makes the love of pure forms coincide with the apprehension of the inexhaustible historicity found at every street corner, in every skin fold, and at every moment of time.”

My beef is with the language, which takes a lot of heavy words to express a simple idea; an idea whose strength has been known for millennia: we like and appreciate art because it represents our lives, what we do, how we think and act and express our emotions, triumphs, sorrows, and failures.

Art exists because we exist.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

What New Ways Can Lit Studies Be Wrecked?

I think that Historicism should be an afterthought to studying literature, never the focus. To push aside the characters, the theme, the setting, and thus the story in order to place the “story” in context with the time in which it is set diminishes the beauty and impact of what was otherwise the author’s point in creating that story. Most of the time — if a reader has any knowledge of history and historical eras — one can put forth with ease the simplest of explanations for historical-fiction connection: “That’s how they did things back then” … eg, slavery, war, child rearing, business, etcetera. Now the reader can get down to some deep reading in order to understand what these characters are doing and why they are doing it. Good has always been part of society; evil has always had its role as well. The people who lived within (and who shall yet do so) must tread across the same grounds as ever.

The Thoughts between the Images

I’ve been reading “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell for a couple weeks now (it’s 975 pages!) and every bit of it is filled with contrasting images. From the Ukrainian forests overrun by Nazis, and used to hide the slaughtered “enemies,” to the garish nightlife of war-arrogant Berlin’s privileged aristocracy, Littell is intent on showing his audience life in Nazi Germany through the war years.

At first I was disconcerted with the story — not for its prose, or the character; both are compelling works of literary imagination — because the description of the atrocities inflicted on the civilian populations by the SS killers was a lesson in repetition of the striking image. This were as much a blitzkrieg to the senses of readers as war is to soldiers. Then he tempered these images by getting into the mind of the narrator, whose own careful observation of other soldiers brought about a picture that goes far beyond any film or war-time documentary can illustrate.

This is where “The Kindly Ones” took hold of me, and has not let go since. And here is found the focus of this column: the need for the author to get the thoughts of his character at just the right time; sometimes woven into the descriptive narrative, and other times coming abruptly, through memory or sense-triggering. Here’s where we writers can draw the reader along, after whipping her back and forth through the carefully developed labyrinth of images created to tell the story.

For example, after several such “actions” in which this narrator-cum-SS-Officer has watch in horror how (this is early in the war) regular soldiers were used to shoot civilians point-blank in the head and let them fall into a hastily dug trench, he sees what this has done to soldiers:

As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife, his sister, or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own children in front of him in the pit.

Without this internal struggle, this book would have quickly become a “war book” filled with dirty language, “band of brothers” camaraderie, and sentimental feelings for home or family (or both). But this SS Officer is not so different from officers in other armies who have witnessed home-grown atrocities, and this makes all the difference.

In another episode, on the Russian front at Stalingrad as the Nazis are surrounded and being pummeled by the counter-attacking Russian army, under conditions known only to rats, weasels, and other rodents, our newly promoted (to captain) narrator is about to meet a partisan officer on the front lines, hiding in a room whose walls look like Swiss cheese from all the holes blasted through them:

What could this officer, cut off from everything, teach me that I hadn’t already read in some report? True, I could see for myself the miserable condition of the men, their fatigue, their distress, but that, too, I already knew. I had vaguely thought, on my way over there, about a discussion on the political involvement of the Croat soldiers with Germany, on Ustashi ideology: now I understood there was no sense in that; it was worse than futile, and this Oberleutnant would bprobably not have known how to respond; in his head there was room only for food, his home, his family, captivity, or his imminent death. All of a sudden I was tired and disgusted, I felt hypocritical, idiotic. “Merry Christmas,” the officer said to me as he shook my hand, smiling.

These paragraphs are instructive for any writer: in a world where so much imagery is dark, colored only by the red of blood from torn apart soldiers, we have the thoughts of an intellectual-turned-soldier to interrupt our own horror (a living nightmare few of us have witnessed). This is the humanity we seek within war’s theater, often left out, and unexplained; and these are the thoughts that make fiction the truth of humanity’s struggle with itself, no matter what conditions of splendor or squalor, heralded victory or murderous failure.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.