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Book Review: 'The Western Canon: The Books and the School of the Ages'

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Who’d have thought that Harold Bloom, the doleful-countenanced Yale prof and literary critic eternally laboring under the weight of his own heavy theory, would turn out to be such an Entertainment Weekly kinda guy? Just look: His new book, The Western Canon: The Books and the School of the Ages (Harcourt Brace, $29.95) is a lengthy, frequently enlightening, sometimes baffling overview of the great literature of Western Civilization, but it concludes with a decidedly unacademic item: a list — a personal, highly idiosyncratic list — of Bloom’s picks for the best in literature throughout the ages. Although Bloom is winningly self-deprecating in places — ”Cultural prophecy is always a mug’s game,” he notes at one point — his list amounts to whimsy tempered by extensive knowledge. It’s heartening to see Ishmael Reed’s amazing, hilarious 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo make Bloom’s cut, but who besides Harold would pick The Witches of Eastwick as John Updike’s best book?

This portentous list is what makes The Western Canon fun and outrageous; the rest of the book is just good, hard work. Bloom forces you to buy his central thesis — that William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry are at the very center of the West’s creativity, its ongoing inspiration — and then organizes his book around this argument. The result is engrossing sections in which Bloom makes a case for even so unlikely a writer as Sigmund Freud’s having been profoundly influenced by Shakespeare — as were Whitman, Proust, and Emily Dickinson. The list — Bloom’s Greatest Hits — is what will get all the attention, but it is the text preceding that provides the true pleasure. Besides, who’d have thought we’d ever get to give Harold Bloom and the entire Western canon a grade? A-