Harold Bloom on the Jr. Canon


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

for Children?

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

Books.

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

nerves.

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

minor masterpiece.

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

that.

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