About Harold Bloom’s “The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Reread”

From a Washington Post review by Wendy Smith of Harold Bloom’s The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Reread”:

Harold Bloom was one of the leading critics of his generation, and there is no question about his erudition. It is on full display in the posthumously published “The Bright Book of Life” as he examines “novels to read and reread,” from Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” to Joshua Cohen’s “Book of Numbers.” If only his vast trove of knowledge weren’t so often employed to place writers within a hierarchy. . . .

I wish Bloom, who died in 2019, could have sometimes appreciated writers for what they are rather than grading them on a curve. But it was evident at least since “The Anxiety of Influence” appeared in 1973 that he viewed literature as a contest, measuring writers against a yardstick of purportedly timeless values without acknowledging that such values might reflect his personal tastes. . . .

I have to admit that it was fun to quarrel with Bloom’s judgments and selections. If Kafka and Beckett are better than Thomas Mann, why is “The Magic Mountain” on this list while “The Trial” and “The Unnamable” are not? “Don Quixote” and “Clarissa” are rightly here — they are foundational novels that shaped a new genre — but where is Madame de La Fayette’s equally foundational “The Princess of Clèves”? One novel by Virginia Woolf and two by Ursula K. Le Guin?. . .I had to wonder whether Bloom had not read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” or was simply indulging his weakness for sweeping generalizations. . . .

“Reading your own way into secular revelation” is “the enterprise of my long life,” Bloom tells us in his preface. As practiced here, this is not a social activity. The text is studded with nuggets of shrewd perception: Jane Austen “teaches patience inflected by wit and the joy of being”; Emma Bovary “enters the realm of inactivity, where the protagonists are bored but the reader is not”; Tolstoy excels in grasping “the tang of the actual.” But Bloom rarely incorporates these flashes into a fully articulated explication of what the writer achieves in a given novel. His scattered aperçus are piquant, but ultimately unsatisfying. When he does offer a synthesis, it frequently tells us as much about Bloom’s view of literature as it does about the aims of the author, as when he informs us, “James Joyce was the master agonist, daring to contend even against Dante and Shakespeare for the foremost place.”

“I go back to reread novels to find old friends still living and to make new ones,” Bloom writes. No one who loves literature will be unmoved by his sense of engaging in a conversation across the centuries with writers and their creations. But I wish the conversations in “The Bright Book of Life” offered more than competitive rankings and fleeting moments of insight.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”


  1. Great points.

    I do think it is possible to claim Beckett and Kafka are stronger than Thomas Mann while having “The Magic Mountain” listed without “The Trial” or “The Unnamable”.

    It is comparable to baseball. One could call Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season the greatest ever pitched without calling him the greatest pitcher.

    Similarly, Bloom may simply have found “The Magic Mountain” to be a standout work while Kafka and Beckett had a better body of work or style of writing.

    Bloom definitely adored Mann. “Joseph and HIs Brothers” functions as a cornerstone of Bloom’s commentary on Genesis in “The Shadow of a Great Rock”. He clearly adores the work.

    Still, Bloom made himself easy to mistranslate. One can only assume his “why” without him explicitly saying so.

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