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The Western Canon: The Books and School of…

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (original 1994; edition 1995)

by Harold Bloom

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Title:The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages
Authors:Harold Bloom
Info:Riverhead Trade (1995), Edition: 1st Riverhead ed, Paperback, 560 pages
Collections:Read, Your library

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The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom (1994)


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What's fascinating to me is that even though there is all the unfortunate blather and fulmination against his critical antagonists in the academy, most of whom appear to have completely ignored him, and there is also a lamentable amount of the Because I Say So school of argument, Harold Bloom, when he actually gets down to talking about the authors he loves and why he loves them, makes a certain amount of sense. He has what would have been called, in the era he should have lived in, good taste in literature. That is, he understands how a writer's mastery of complex ideas and of techniques to express them can create both pleasure and insight, i.e., real beauty. And his theory of influence, through which the artists of what he calls canonical works can be seen as choosing one another, is actually defensible, I think.

What's wrong is saying we have to choose, a la George Bush and the terrorists, between the pre-eminence of aesthetic concerns or socio-political ones, once and for all, in all discussions of literature. I reject that choice. So did some the critics I most admire, Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Hayden White and Frederic Jameson. They all loved canonical literature just as much as Harold Bloom, I venture to say. And White and Jameson actually bothered to take French critical theory on on its own ground, and in my view, showed exactly why, necessary as it may have been in a particular historical moment, it was a dead end for literary study. Bloom just rants about dreary feminists and multiculturalists who force us to read b-a-a-d books. He may have a point about the vagueness of focus in "cultural studies" programs producing bad scholarship, but he buries it in personal prejudice.

Perhaps he ought to have examined how his anxiety about his own influence both confirms his theory and makes it impossible for him to appreciate that the chaotic time with which he's so out of joint still offers up much creative possibility, and a legacy for literature. I wonder if a graphic novelist who writes a lesbian bildungsroman that's also a critical appreciation of Proust (Alison Bechtel), or television series writer David Milch's characters who bleed Shakespeare in every line, or Patti Smith's rock performance tributes to Rimbaud and William Blake would sway him at all. I doubt it. Too bad, because canonical literature is morphing before our very eyes. Far from dying out, it's the many-headed hydra, and it's popping up everywhere. ( )
2 vote CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
This book sets out to be a defense of the Western literary canon, and only partially succeeds. Bloom seems to have read everything and remembers everything he ever read; his evident passion is undeniable. However, in this, just as in The Anxiety of Influence (which remains an essential book) his concentration of the highest of high points, almost to the dismissal of all other literature, is troubling and unhelpful, especially because he drops hints that indicate how much other literature he enjoys and loves. The essays here are really more like highly impressionistic personal (rather old-fashioned) readings of certain aspects of great works, than a reasoned defense of the canon. For the most part, I did not find the essays on works I have read particularly helpful, and the chapters on works I haven't read rarely made me want to go out and find a copy. His hero worship of Dante and Shakespeare feels entirely out of scale to the subject at hand, Curiously, his reading list in the appendix includes hundreds of works, many by authors of decidedly second rank. ( )
1 vote sjnorquist | May 3, 2013 |
He's too full of himself - one of the dullest books I've tried to read in decades. ( )
1 vote dverg48 | Dec 1, 2010 |
Harold Bloom is unapologetic in his strong opinions about which books and authors are important. He mounts a credible defense against what he calls the School of Resentment. You may not agree with him, but his opinions are backed up with a thorough understanding of the artistic works discussed. This book is just one that should be consulted by students or lovers of literature for both its ideas on how to read, and its reading lists in the appendices. ( )
3 vote nog | Aug 21, 2009 |
Bloom Almighty: I first read this book about nine or so years ago, and I reread parts of it almost every day. So why am I just now getting around to reviewing it? Well for one thing I didn't have internet access when I bought it. But, I figured it's time to give the master his due.

This book has had the greatest influence on me of any book I have read in recent memory, for many reasons. To begin with, Bloom's erudition is staggering. That he could read all that he has, and in addition retain and catalogue all of it, is simply beyond my comprehension. Bloom focuses on 28 authors he considers canonical and provides extensive descriptions and quotations from their work. If I understand Bloom correctly, he regards these authors as comprising the Western Canon, but he also has an appendix listing hundreds of authors that, I think, comprise the national canons of different countries. Whatever. But Bloom's importance lies in providing vivid enough descriptions of some major works so that one is motivated to read them. In my own case, at least, he has succeeded brilliantly.

Solely because of this book, in the past few years I have done all of the following, which I might not otherwise have done: 1) Read Goethe's "Faust," Parts I and II. Part II is absolutely wild, and is every bit as great as Bloom says. 2) Read "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens, which Bloom regards as the greatest English novel. It probably is. 3) Seen a production of "Endgame" by Samuel Beckett. Not my cup of tea, but it piques discussion at least. 4) Read several novels by Cormac McCarthy, beginning with "Blood Meridian." Bloom regards McCarthy as one of many successors to Shakespeare. Bloom is right; McCarthy is a powerful writer. I don't think I had ever heard of him before I read Bloom. 5) Read "Persuasion" by Jane Austen; Bloom regards this as Austen's greatest novel. 6) Read "Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges.

No other author has so influenced me to expand my range of reading as Bloom. However, I do not share Bloom's pessism. He sees literacy as in decline, which it probably is. However, the literary acumen with which previous generations have been gifted is probably being replaced by a new set of audio-visual skills that are more related to electronic media. Whether this is as tragic a thing as Bloom seems to think it is will have to be determined by history, but I don't think it is. Unfortunately, Bloom is a follower of Vico's historical theories, which envision the current chaotic age being replaced by a theocratic age. I simply cannot envision that happening in the western democracies. But we won't know until this writer, at least, is long gone from this world. ( )
8 vote Esquilinho | Sep 30, 2008 |
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Harold Bloom at his best is a rewarding and humane critic; one feels obliged to express gratitude for his many passing generosities before dismissing his Western canon with a gentle "Thank you, but no, thank you."
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, Robert M. Adams (pay site) (Nov 17, 1994)
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"Harold Bloom explores our Western literary tradition by concentrating on the works of twenty-six authors central to the Canon. He argues against ideology in literary criticism; he laments the loss of intellectual and aesthetic standards; he deplores multiculturalism, Marxism, feminism, neoconservatism, Afrocentrism, and the New Historicism." "Insisting instead upon "the autonomy of the aesthetic," Bloom places Shakespeare at the center of the Western Canon. Shakespeare has become the touchstone for all writers who come before and after him, whether playwrights poets or storytellers. In the creation of character, Bloom maintains, Shakespeare has no true precursor and has left no one after him untouched. Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Ibsen, Joyce, and Beckett were all indebted to him; Tolstoy and Freud rebelled against him; and Dante, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, Whitman, Dickinson, Proust, the modern Hispanic and Portuguese writers Borges, Neruda, and Pessoa are exquisite examples of how canonical writing is born of an originality fused with tradition." "Bloom concludes this provocative, trenchant work with a complete list of essential writers and books - his vision of the Canon."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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