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A Reading List for Bill Gates-and You - Harold Bloom On What Bill Gates Should Be Reading This Summer

No one denies that it's harder than ever these days to carve out time to read email, much less complicated novels. But Harold Bloom, one of America's most famous and influential literary critics, has a few tips. In this excerpt from the Harvard Business Review, the author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and How to Read and Why advises on what to read—and what not to bother with.

Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom

Every individual—regardless of profession—needs to stretch his mind and to reflect, now and again, on the human condition. Literature beckons, but which works should be read, and why? To help answer these questions, HBR senior editor Diane L. Coutu recently met with Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University Graduate School. A MacArthur Prize winner, Bloom has edited more than 1,200 books of literary criticism and has written 24 books, among them such best-sellers as Shakespeare and The Western Canon. In this excerpt taken from a wide-ranging conversation in his home in New Haven, Connecticut, Bloom discussed what we can learn from literature—and what we cannot.

HBR: What literature should busy executives make time for? If Bill Gates, for example, were to ask you for a reading list, what would you recommend?

Bloom: Well, I have never met Bill Gates, and I'm not likely ever to do so. So at the risk of sounding too predictable, I would have to start by recommending the works of William Shakespeare. Everything we could possibly want to know about ourselves we can find in Shakespeare. He invented himself so brilliantly that he invents all the rest of us. He is at once the best, the most original, the strongest cognitive and aesthetic writer there has ever been, in any language. And yet he's also an entertainer. He's directly concerned at every point with keeping the play moving.

I disagree that the study of literature will make businesspeople more moral.
—Harold Bloom

I find that reading Shakespeare is like overhearing yourself, which, by the way, is very different from hearing yourself. When you overhear yourself, you're almost unaware that you're the speaker. In other words, you learn about yourself without any self-consciousness. There is this moment of literal non-recognition, in which you're shocked that you are speaking. For people who find it difficult to talk to themselves—and I suspect that this is true for many people in business—reading Shakespeare is an incredible way to learn about themselves.

Shakespeare's only possible rival in imaginative literature of the past four centuries is Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote the classic, Don Quixote. Cervantes remains the best of all novelists, just as Shakespeare remains the best of all dramatists. There are parts of yourself that you will never know fully until you know Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But there's a fundamental difference between Cervantes and Shakespeare: Sancho and the Don develop newer and richer egos by talking to each other. Falstaff and Hamlet perform the same process through lonely soliloquies.

I also think that Bill Gates—who seems to be interested in social trends—could benefit from reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is not an easy read, but he was and remains the American sage, particularly in his great essay "Self-Reliance." More than any other American—writer or not—Emerson captures the ethos of the American spirit. He knows what is uniquely American—individualism—and yet also provides continuity with general human aspirations throughout the ages. In a world that is becoming increasingly Americanized, we should all be reading Emerson.

Finally, I would recommend the writings of Sigmund Freud. Businesspeople should not be put off by the fact that he's considered the father of psychoanalysis—which is almost a sect within American psychiatric medicine. There is no twentieth-century writer—not even Proust or Joyce or Kafka—who rivals Freud as the central imagination of our age. Freud is a powerful rhetorician, a subtle ironist, and the most fascinating of all really polemical writers in the Western intellectual tradition. Indeed, I believe that Freud's conceptions are so magnificent that they now form the only Western mythology that contemporary intellectuals have in common.

Q: Do the humanities have anything to offer business?

A: I'm not a businessperson, but I do believe that the humanities—if properly taught—could offer a great deal to businesspeople. By reading, people can become more aware and acquire a broader range of sensibility. But I disagree that the study of literature will make businesspeople more moral. I've been intimately acquainted with poets and novelists and literary critics all my life—people who have had the subtlest and most comprehensive consciousness—and they are some of the greatest scoundrels I have ever met. Moreover, I am very unhappy with any attempt to put the humanities, and literature in particular, in the service of social change. So many novels these days are overpraised for social purposes, and as a result, what should be regarded as supermarket fiction is canonized by the universities. This is a terrible disservice to the reading public.

Q: American society is characterized by its devotion both to capitalism and to religion. As an acute observer of the human condition, you are more interested in religion than in business. Why?

A: It may indeed be true that the business of America is business—and always has been business and always will be business. But I believe that the ultimate concern of America, for better and for worse, is religion. I think that religion largely explains the genius of this country. For example, I believe that it is religion in this country that refutes Marx. As I've said so often, religion is not the opiate of the American people; it is their poetry.

The startling thing about the United States is not that 93% of us say that we believe in God, which is, in fact, except for the Republic of Ireland, the highest percentage in the world. The really shocking thing is that 89% of us, and this number must include businesspeople, say that God loves him or her on a personal basis. I think that the consequences of nine out of ten Americans really believing that God loves them on an individual basis is the most important thing you can know about this country. It produces some very unique opportunities—and some very strange dangers.

I believe that understanding the American religion, which is an indigenous religion with almost nothing in common with European Protestantism, ought to be the starting point in any consideration we have of American literature—and even of American business. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "All Americans are poets and mystics." I presume that includes the capitalists, too.

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Excerpted with permission from "A Reading List for Bill Gates—and You: A Conversation With Literary Critic Harold Bloom," Harvard Business Review, May 2001, Vol. 79, No. 5.

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Diane L. Coutu is a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review.

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