In a room where one of America’s best-known literary thinkers decades ago met the books to which he would swear lifelong devotion, people were still reading books on Wednesday’s rainy afternoon.
A student alone at one table took careful notes out of an algebra book. Two serious-looking college-age kids sat across from each other studying textbooks; one of them dozed a little. A young couple sat, she in his lap—though there were other chairs to be had—reading a novel, a school notebook open beside it. A man on a couch read a graphic novel, and another guy had a newspaper spread in front of him. Most of the 30 or so patrons were looking at phones or laptops; a few were at a row of desktop computers. Some were watching videos, and some were playing games. But no one was talking. The only sound was the muffled bustle from the street outside, as befits a library.
The Melrose Branch of the New York Public Library, located just around the corner from the Bronx criminal courthouse, is where a young Harold Bloom, who grew up a few blocks away, came to read during his youth in the Bronx in the 1930s and 40s. Bloom, the author of 40 books, including several polarizing and landmark works of literary criticism, died Monday at age 89.
Bloom possessed extraordinary—perhaps innate—cognitive gifts: According to his New York Times obituary, he could absorb a 400-page book in an hour. Still, one wonders where Bloom (reportedly not an especially successful student at Bronx Science) would have gone without the public library to feed his literary appetite. It is reasonable to assume that the foundation for the intellectual journey that would take him to Cornell, Yale and Cambridge as a student and back to Yale as a professor for 64 years and make his death noteworthy to the Times, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and others, was laid in the space at the corner of Morris Avenue and 162nd Street.
Could the Melrose branch of today nurture a similar life of ideas?
Bloom would have been puzzled to see the announcements pinned inside a glass case near the library’s front door: the Minecraft tournament the first Saturday of every month, the showing of Shazam coming up on Saturday, a gamers’ club meeting each Thursday night. Ahead of the “Toddler Tech” session scheduled for the day of my visit, there was an event known as Wii Wednesday on the calendar. There were adult dance fitness classes on offer. Downstairs in the children’s section, a small group of kids played a video game on a large screen. Others played games on their phones. Except for two uniform-clad students huddled over the worksheets they had for homework, no one was reading.
Thankfully, while most of the Melrose branch’s programming does revolve around computers or arts & crafts, there are three regular events on its calendar—Family Storytime, Sing-along Storytime and Sunday Fun-day Storytime—that promote reading. In the adult section, most of the bookshelves were barely half full with actual books, but for a young person thirsting for something more than Minecraft, there are plenty of options there. There is on one shelf a massive biography about the life of Charles De Gaulle, and nearby one (actually, a few) about Barack Obama. The literature section features James Baldwin, Mary Higgins Clark, Junot Diaz, Walter Mosely and dozens of others. Sadly, there was no Toni Morrison visible, but hopefully it was just loaned out. There are cookbooks, books about weight loss, a climate-change denial manifesto, Hillary’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. There is a large romance section. There are graphic novels, which Bloom would have hated, even if The Watchmen does have something just as valuable to tell us as “The Faerie Queene.”
Bloom famously defended “the Western Canon” against a “school of resentment” into which he lumped feminism, Marxism and other interpretive lenses that dared to propose that other texts might be as worthy, or perhaps even worthier, than Shakespeare or Milton or Moliere. His younger self might have taken refuge in the small “classics” section on the adult floor at Melrose, where the shelf holds Austen, Dickens, Joyce and Proust—members of a select group of 26 authors Bloom once declared to form the heart of The Canon.
Achebe, Conrad and Steinbeck are there on the Melrose classics shelf, too. Who knows what Bloom would have thought about that. And really, who cares what Bloom would have thought about that? The important thing is, if a patron of today’s NYPL Melrose wanted to tap into one of the English language’s timeless texts—a list that since Bloom’s heyday has thankfully expanded to include a few more authors who were not White, male or even dead—they could.
Or, they could read other books: true-crime stories, mystery novels, self-help tomes. The old adage that “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them,” was maybe once true. But even Bloom would agree that a crappy romance novel is likely a better way to spend three hours than staring at a palm-sized screen.
Of course, it’s not just whether you read, or what you read, but why and how that matters. One of Bloom’s defining arguments was to reject the notion that books should be read with a social purpose in mind, or that political or social considerations should shape what students are told to read. “The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools,” he once wrote.
That proposition seems to rely on the rather flimsy assumption that political and social forces didn’t play some role in determining that, say, a young Harold Bloom was exposed to Shakespeare and not something else. All the same, Bloom contended that books should be read solely for the quality of their craftsmanship. Indeed, in the non-fiction section at Melrose are several well-crafted books about history and politics. But there is also The Foreclosure Survival Guide and Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, a slim volume titled Represent Yourself in Court and another with The Complete IEP Guide on the spine. People who take those kinds of books from the shelves are reading for survival, not aesthetics. It seems social considerations are shaping what at least some Melrose NYPL patrons read, whether Bloom would like it or not.
In that sense and others, today’s libraries reflect the fact that, like most Bronx neighborhoods, the Melrose of 2019 is different from the one of Bloom’s youth. It’s a harder place to grow up or grow old, so the library is not just a place to read Jules Verne or Leo Tolstoy. As City Limits’ past coverage of libraries chronicles in detail, present-day branches serve as safe spaces for kids whose parent or parents are working when school lets out, or who are doubled up in apartments and have no quiet place to do homework. They’re day refuges for the homeless, workplaces for independent entrepreneurs. These are essential roles that no other place is equipped to provide.
Like most patrons of Melrose, your correspondent has never read a word of Bloom’s (except for what I saw in this week’s remembrances of him). But his influence over my education is obvious: My high-school English curriculum very consciously rejected the idea that The Canon was uniquely worthy of our attention. My teachers’ approach embraced the idea that literature wasn’t an either/or decision: One should read Paradise Lost as well as Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mrs. Dalloway and My Beautiful Laundrette, and then go back for more.
Like a good reading list, a library is also not an either/or proposition. Libraries have always blended the utilitarian and the life of the mind. They are where one could pick up a Form 1040 or lose oneself in The Power and The Glory. Not many of us who stroll in and out of places like NYPL Melrose will ever suffer the “anxiety of influence” that Bloom contended shaped all writing, or agree with his contention that “Shakespeare is God.” All the same, he made a large and lasting mark, and in some way he was able to do so because a place like Melrose existed.
Even and perhaps especially amid our modern challenges of inequality and systemic racism and climate change, the world needs thinkers, and it needs them to come from places like 1410 Grand Concourse (Bloom’s childhood home). So long as libraries remain temples of the book—in hardcover, in paperback, in electronic form, in every genre, by authors of every color, gender and time—and not merely portals to Minecraft’s virtual biomes, places like the Melrose branch will be where young readers can connect with something deeper and share it with the rest of us, to infuriate or inspire, but always to keep us reading.