The Joy of Reading

Telling 35 million readers that they are wrong is a bold statement. Especially when those readers are Harry Potter fans. But Harold Bloom offers an alternative: Hans Christian Andersen. Here he talks about how to read in general and why Hans Christian Andersen is such a universal writer.

By Jasmina Nielsen - - 13 March 2003

Harold Bloom is on the phone with his agent, when he answers the door. He gestures, motioning me to come inside. A blizzard has been raging all morning. Yale campus and the large, old houses along Linden Street are covered in snow, and everything is hushed.

Mr. Bloom resembles an old turtle, almost like a "Wind in the Willows" character. He is slow and cautious. His teeth are yellow. His face is wrinkled: he has bags under his eyes. His red jumper is saggy just like his black pants which are too short. It is obvious that his stomach used to be much bigger than it is now. He, and his wife, Jeanne, are both on a diet, which they strictly enforce. Yet it still looks as if he has indulged in too many books, for too long, and that he is still digesting them. Owning and reading more than 30,000 books would probably make anyone gain weight, and literary weight.

After a few introductory remarks, Mrs. Bloom makes tea and then retreats upstairs with a book and the New York Times.

Mr. Bloom takes a seat in a large, light-brown leather chair. Two small tables, stacked high with books, flank him on each side. Several piles of books are on the floor, and the bookcase behind him is full. On the other side of the room, shelves are stacked full of translations of his books. He leans back and puts his legs up. The phone is within reach - in case his agent calls - and he starts talking.

Why Harry Potter?
In July of 2000 the staff of the Wall Street Journal asked Mr. Bloom to write an op-ed piece about the Harry Potter phenomenon.

"I went to the bookstore and got the first book, and read as much as I could bear," he says. "It was unbearable. I started putting checkmarks on a piece of paper every time someone, instead of going out for a walk, "stretched their legs"."

Mr. Bloom is a reader's reader who firmly believes that one must read to find one self. That is the main theory that runs like a red thread through his authorship. He has written more than 25 books since 1959, including "The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry" (1973), "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" (1998) and the very controversial "The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages" (1994).

He believes the important aspect of reading is the esthetics and the characters of the book, not the political or social circumstances under which the books were written. He has been called arrogant and elitist, and has been criticized for telling people how to read and why, not to mention what.

Triple by-pass
But the 72-year-old professor is also an authority on the written word, and many people were excited about him editing a book about Hans Christian Andersen. Unfortunately, he was weakened by a triple by-pass operation in the fall of 2002 and two follow-up operations him, and had to turn the project down.

Though he is both Sterling Professor at Yale University and Berg Visiting Professor at New York University, he has not taught at either place the past two semesters. His heart medicine makes his nose run, and he sniffles after each sentence. However, he still acts as if he is a kind of literary prophet and calls his listeners "dear" and "child".

Despite his slow recovery, Mr. Bloom is contemplating an essay about Hans Christian Andersen, in which he will compare him to other authors from the 19th century, Tolstoy and Charles Dickens among others. And it is possible he will come to Denmark to give a talk in 2005.

Mr. Bloom doubts that the Harry Potter books will be as lasting as Hans Christian Andersen's stories. In the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, he posed the question: "Why read, if what you read does not enrich your mind or spirit or personality?" A reader responded in a letter to the editor, "Because it is fun."

The challenge of reading
Mr. Bloom's question is central to the way he reads, and how he thinks everyone should read: it must be demanding, challenging and difficult. It must not be an easy pleasure, as he describes visual pleasures. It must enhance a human's conversation with him- or herself.  The joy of reading, in Mr. Bloom's eyes, is a way of seeking wisdom.

So Mr. Bloom thinks Harry Potter is garbage. "It's cliché-ridden," he says. "It is a kind of corrupt pleasure, which doesn't make any kind of cognitive or esthetic or imaginative demands upon its readers. Whereas Andersen makes the same demands upon his readers of whatever age that, say, Charles Dickens does."

Along with Søren Kierkegaard and Victor Borge, Hans Christian Andersen is one of a few well-known Danes. The bicentennial of his birthday is in 2005, which will include a large celebration of his literary work.

"I remember reading him when I was about nine or ten," Mr. Bloom says. "And actually being frightened by many of his stories. He really deals with nightmares, to a certain extent. Not in the obvious Edgar Allen Poe kind of universal nightmares, but the sense that forces are breaking loose, which you can't possibly control, that are very dangerous for you."

Mr. Bloom says that he has read the English, German and French translations of Hans Christian Andersen, and that each translation seems to be a story written by completely different authors, noting that the original stories lose a lot in translation. However, he also points out how Hans Christian Andersen's stories, though based on old Danish folktales, really have very little in common with the folktales. And that shows his genius, because he did not really have precursors.

"There's a kind of extravagance in what he writes, there is a startling originality. And there is a lot of violence. The sexual nature, which he has repressed [...] is always breaking forth in one way or another in what he writes."

Frightening writer
Mr. Bloom pauses. Silences during the conversation are frequent, and he often seem to get lost in his own thoughts.

"Hans Christian Andersen is a quite frightening writer," he says. "I mean even when they [the stories] end happily, they are quite frightening. They are all suspended over the abyss."

"Think of the Red Shoes for instance, those shoes that will not stop dancing. In order to liberate the poor child from the shoes, they have to chop off her feet, which are still inside the shoes, as the shoes go dancing on. The child comes into contact with this remarkable pair of shoes, which are demonic. And so the shoes keep on dancing with her feet inside them."

"Though he is not really in any sense a Shakespearean writer, he [Hans Christian Andersen] is universal," Mr. Bloom continues. "Those disturbing tales can be translated into any language and can matter in almost any context. There is nothing peculiarly Danish about them, not if you are looking from the outside. I always found that to be his great strength, he is accessible."

Mr. Bloom does not think it makes sense to refer to Hans Christian Andersen in terms of being solely a children's author.
"I've always wondered why, in English-speaking countries he has been considered a children's writer," he says. "He isn't really. He has in some ways more in common with the Russian Gogol than he does with the Grimm brothers."

Two hours have gone by and the snow is still falling. Mr. Bloom is tired, and would like to return to his work. Instead of shaking hands - which in Mr. Bloom's case is really no more than a light brush of the fingertips - he places his hand on the top of my head, as if blessing me. He may disagree with 35 million readers, but he is still intent on spreading the joy of reading. Even if it does momentarily lead close to an abyss created by Hans Christian Andersen.