Harold Bloom has died at the age of 89. Professor Bloom was legendary in the literary community, to say the least. To say his opinions on literary matters were controversial is also to say the least. A polarizing literary critic, he also was one of the few to achieve a popular success — several of his books on literature topped the best seller lists, a tough trick to accomplish.
The obituaries that have appeared since Professor Bloom’s death on Monday have emphasized the controversies. I won’t go into those — that would take up the whole column — I’d like to stay (mostly) with the facts of his career. He was a prolific writer, turning out at least 40 books of his own and either editing or providing introductions to countless others. Starting with “The Anxiety of Influence” in 1973, he enjoyed an enviable publishing career.
Two of his books — “The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages” in 1994 and “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” in 1998 — brought Professor Bloom to widespread public attention. There were others that weren’t quite such bestsellers, but were equally interesting, in my opinion. I particularly like “How to Read and Why” from 2000. If nothing else, his books were guaranteed to cause a fuss. The man had a real talent for explaining difficult concepts to non-specialists, and he could really turn a phrase, too.
The one thing about Professor Bloom’s life that always fascinated me — and which the obituaries have largely reported with a mere mention or two — was his reported ability to read quickly. When I say “read quickly,” I mean VERY quickly. According to the New York Times obituary by Dinitia Smith, Bloom claimed to be able to read at a rate of 400 pages per HOUR, retaining most of what he read. She references the observation of Richard Bernstein, a friend of Bloom’s, when she writes that “watching Professor Bloom read was ‘scary.’”
That reading rate puts Bloom on a par with other famous speed readers like President Theodore Roosevelt, who is widely reported to have read up to three books per day (and again, retained most of what he read), and President John F. Kennedy, who is widely reported to have been able to read the whole New York Times — not a small newspaper — in two minutes. I say “widely reported” because well, those stories are widely reported, but also because I’m nearly sure that those stories are legendary.
Why? Just think of the “physics” of reading at such a rate! A reading rate of 400 pages per HOUR equals nearly 6.67 pages per MINUTE. Put another way, that’s approximately one page every 11 seconds. There’s just no way! Simply no way that someone can read at that rate and retain anything useful. Unless ... an extraordinary ability is involved. Professor Bloom is reported to have had a “photographic memory.” Not having such a thing, I cannot comment on it.
I can comment on reading rates, though. I’m a reasonably quick and nimble reader, and I can read 30 to 35 pages per hour, maximum, and 20 to 25 pages if I’m highlighting and annotating. Less than that if Simi Kat is “helping” me read by sitting in my lap and smacking at my pencil with her paws. She seems to think reading is a game of some sort. On the other hand, I take it “dead serious,” as the phrase goes.
As to retaining what I’m reading at such a rate, I’m less such. Retention is not something that’s easily “counted,” really, and there’s also the variable of how much time has passed since I’ve read something. If I’ve read that many pages, I’ll retain a good part of it for quite a while, but when years have passed, I’ll not remember too much at all. That’s why I take notes.
In fact — and I’ll be completely frank and honest about it — I’ve picked up a book or two (or three ... or even a dozen!) lately that I wonder if I’ve ever read at all until I open the book and see the notes I’ve taken and the lines I’ve underlined. There’s another reason to annotate and highlight! To be brutally frank and honest, I sometimes forget that I’ve written about a subject in this column — there have been 52 columns per year for a while now — so I search my files to see if I have before I start writing.
I have no problem believing that Professor Bloom (and Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy) could skim-read that quickly. Skimming is another reading talent entirely. However, I’m pretty quick with that talent, too, and even skim-reading at the rate of 400 pages per hour is astounding.
However, there’s a line in the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” — “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s one of the wisest things ever filmed. So, I’ll suspend my disbelief and say this one thing about Professor Harold Bloom: He could read 400 pages per hour and retain what he had read.
I enjoyed your books, Professor Bloom. Rest in peace.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions reflected are his own.