HomeArts: Why should children read?
And why should children read good books?
Bloom: To be coldly pragmatic about it,
reading good books will make them more
interesting both to themselves and to others.
And it is by becoming more interesting--and
this sounds callous, but it's true, I
think--that by becoming more interesting
both to oneself and to others, one develops
a sense of one's separate and distinct self.
So if children are to individuate themselves,
they will not do it by watching television, or
by playing video games, or by listening to
rock, or by watching rock videos. They will
individuate themselves by being alone with a
book, by being alone with the poetry of
William Blake or A. E. Housman, or being
alone with Norse mythology or The Wind
in the Willows.
HomeArts: What books would you include in a Western Canon
Bloom: I will recommend again Kenneth Grahame's surpassingly
marvelous book The Wind in the Willows for everybody
between the ages of zero and 100. I still remember my older
sister reading me The Wind in the Willows, which broke my
heart many times and certainly alerted me to literary values.
My son, who's 32, is often in our New York apartment these
days without either my wife or myself. A few nights ago he
spoke to me on the phone and he said that he felt very lonesome
there. It's one of those old, Edith Wharton kinds of buildings with
extremely high ceilings. He said, "I feel like I'm Mr. Toad of
Toad Hall," at which I broke into sympathetic laughter. I don't think that anyone
who read The Wind in the Willows when he was a child would ever forget it.
All of Lewis Carroll's works would have to be canonized. Lewis
Carroll, I would think, more than any other author in English.
And Through the Looking Glass more than his other works. I
think it's his masterpiece. It captivated me as a child.
Edward Lear would have to be in the canon--all the Nonsense
Then there are the traditional tales. Hans Christian Andersen's
Fairy Tales and the Tales of the Brothers Grimm certainly
qualify. They are both extraordinary--and scary--in the extreme.
There is also a wonderful series of fairy tale books by the
Victorian re-teller Andrew Lang, called The Green Fairy Book,
The Red Fairy Book, and so on. They are remarkable.
And Norse mythology, of course. I remember being thrilled by both The Elder Edda and The
Younger Edda when I was a child; I was enthralled by mythology.
I would want to include a book that retells stories from
Shakespeare really is beyond children, Tales from
Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is a wonderful
retelling of Shakespeare, wonderfully faithful to the ethos and
spirit of the plays, and wonderfully well written.
William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of
Experience. Children should read a great deal of poetry. It
will intrigue and mystify them; they won't understand it, but
that's fine. When I was a little bairn, I read all sorts of poets,
including that marvelous poet, A.E. Housman, whom I
couldn't possibly understand but who nevertheless fascinated
me. And I still remember every line I ever read of Housman.
It was the sheer invocatory force of poetry, what Gerard
Manley Hopkins calls "the roll, the rise, the carol, the
creation," that first drew me to poetry, to Hart Crane and William Blake.
And this was before I could possibly have understood a line of what they
were writing. It was the sheer lilt of it. The glory of it all.
Robert Louis Stevenson and that remarkable book, A Child's
Garden of Verses should be in the canon. And Stevenson's
romances remain in my head. Things that I read as a
youngster, like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, hold up
very well indeed.
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is an absolutely wonderful
book. A fresh, intense, wonderfully vibrant piece of work,
and marvelous for all ages. Terrific writing.
Winnie-the-Pooh is a charming and beautiful book. Indeed,
you see the stuffed animals on the couch facing me? This is a
little duck-billed platypus whom I've named Oscar, in honor
of my hero, Oscar Wilde. And this baby gorilla, whom my
wife gave me for my last birthday, we've named Gorilla
Gorilla. And I've named this wonderful donkey Eeyore. That,
I'm sure, will give you an idea of how I feel about Winnie-the-Pooh.
There are some modern authors who are also remarkable. Maurice Sendak [Where the Wild
Things Are] is astonishing, not just as a visual artist, but as a writer of prose.
Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is a remarkable work;
there's no question about the high quality of the writing. The
social attitudes it embodies, however, are archaic, and belong
to the age of High Imperialism. That doesn't disturb me too
much; it's simply an episode in the history of the West and its
hopeless attempt to dominate the East. But there's no
question about the lasting power of the book--for adults as
well as children of all ages. It's a work with universal appeal.
There are some works of Mark Twain, like A Connecticut
Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which I read when I was a
little one, which strike me as being permanently valuable.
I read Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Alexandre Dumas's
The Three Musketeers and its sequel Twenty Years After.
And then his Count of Monte Cristo, when I was perhaps 15.
And they certainly had a great impact upon me, and I haven't lost them yet.
And I read Jules Verne at the same age and that certainly worked on me to a considerable
degree. I'm not sure I could reread any of that now. I also remember reading a lot of the science
fiction romances of H. G. Wells, and I'm not sure I would want to reread those either, whereas
there are certain things of G. K. Chesterton which I read when I was 14 or 15 which I've
reread recently and which I still find absolutely splendid, particularly that wonderful romance,
The Man Who Was Thursday.
The Sherlock Holmes stories still work well with children, I
think, especially with those who are interested in analytical
things, in problems and reasoning. I must say, however, that I
have great trouble re-reading Sherlock Holmes. I'm 65
now--but it isn't that so much--it's just that they are really not
all that well-written, and sometimes the prose gets on my
For older children, I like J.R.R. Tolkien's original book about
the hobbits (The Hobbit). I think the blown-up trilogy [The
Lord of the Rings] may be a little overrated. It's so heavily
based in gratuitous moralizing. It's top-heavy.
And The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is a genuinely
moving book which holds up amazingly well. It's a miniature
version of Huckleberry Finn in a way. It's authentic, touching
and very poignant of course, because the narrator, Holden, is really on the verge of borderline
schizophrenia and yet seems at the end to have just barely gotten to the other side of it. Of
course we're talking now about a book for children in middle to late adolescence. It would be a
little disturbing I think before then. A wonderfully valid book, aesthetically speaking. Really a
HomeArts: What do you think parents need to do, or what can parents do, to help their
children become enthusiastic and inveterate readers?
Bloom: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I can only despair about that. I mean about all that they
can do is to be gentle and suggestive and say, "Look, my dears, let's turn off the television
this evening, let's not play the CDs this evening. I will sit here and I will read to you from A
Child's Garden of Verses. Or, I will sit here and I will read to you from Norse mythology.
Or I will sit here and I will read The Wind in the Willows to you, and maybe, maybe you
will like it very much. So let's be old-fashioned for a night." It's sort of desperate, but that's
about all that I can suggest.
But you know there must, at this moment as we sit talking to each other, there must be
parents who are doing that throughout the United States. There has to be. I mean, we are so
large a population that the sensitivity, and the infinite variety of people, would surely lead to
I cannot believe that the ancient occurrence of sensitive young men and sensitive young
women going apart, in great solitude, to read for themselves and by themselves--I cannot
believe that that can come to an end.
There will always be sensitive young men and women who will discover Jane Austen, who
will discover Shakespeare. If there aren't, then of course we are all doomed. But I can't
believe that something which is so powerfully resistant to merely social criteria will come to
an end. These things cannot die.
The Home Arts Interview is located at http://countryliving.com/depts/relat/hbloomb1.htm