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Loose Canons

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

By Harold Bloom

Harcourt Brace

578 pp.; $29.95

The Blooming wilderness.

The encomiums on the jacket of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages do not do justice to the work or its author, who, a blurbmeister himself, should probably have written his own: "Bloom takes his place in that strong tradition of critics beginning with Jeremiah who lament the failure of their age to pay sufficient attention to themselves." The great irony of Bloom's book is that he is howling in a wilderness he helped create, one in which imagination is the only reality and literary history is the contentless struggle of authors to overcome their predecessors.

The Western Canon is among the most belated and amusing additions to the growing list of highly marketable, finger-wagging elegies to literary and intellectual culture in America. For the most part, they are the work of windbag humanists-filled with the swirling vapors of piety-who seem to have little more to offer than saying reading is good and that close, appreciative reading of great authors for their own sake is even better.

The great precursor for The Western Canon is, of course, the work of another Bloom: Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, in which the late Straussian argued that America had become a B-movie entitled Nietzsche Meets the Sunshine Boys. For that Bloom, nihilism was valid so long as you didn't enjoy it. Bloom the scholar made out like an investment banker and started something of a trend. We have had E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, William Bennett's The Book of Virtues, David Bromwich's Politics by Other Means, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature, Sven Birkert's The Gutenberg Elegies, and the late Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites. Harold Bloom, in clear agony over a predecessor with the same name, has joined the pantheon of doomsday prophets turning ...

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