The Books of My Numberless Dreams

“How to be a good reader”

Posted on: July 28, 2007

This is the danger of summer. My reading has accelerated at a startling speed and every intriguing literary reference must be pursued to an end that does not exist. Elisabeth Ladenson (Dirt for Art’s Sake) cited a quote showing that Vladimir Nabokov was against identificatory readings, taken from Lectures on Literature. Naturally I had to go to the library a few hours later to pick up the book and read a chapter or two or three to see what he was getting at.

I’m knee deep in his edited lecture on Mansfield Park but plan to only read the other on Kafka’s Metamorphosis before returning it. This mad lust for more and more books to read immediately is inhibiting my habit of ruminating on past reads.

His introductory chapter, “Good Readers and Good Writers”, offered opinions that I instinctively disagreed with before I mentally turned them over and decided that our positions were only shades different. He expressed himself in a declarative, authoritative manner that I both mistrust and admire. I don’t think I could ever state my opinions so definitely and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.

Anyway I’ll post some excerpts over a period of time. I hope that my readers find my recent habit of grabbing whatever aspect of a book I find intriguing and doing an on-the-spur blog rather than a proper “review” enjoyable rather than dissatisfying.


In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a ready-made generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it. Nothing is more boring or more unfair to an author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.

Another question: Can we expect to glean information about places and times from a novel? Can anybody be so naive as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels? But what about the masterpieces? Can we rely on Jane Austen’s picture of landowning England with baronets and landscaped grounds when all she knew was a clergyman’s parlor? And Bleak House, that fantastic romance within a fantastic London, can we call it a study of London a hundred years ago? Certainly not. And the same holds for other such novels in this series. The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales — and the novels in this series are supreme fairy tales.

Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. But the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself. The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of fiction. The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says “go!” allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts. The writer is the first man to map it and to name the natural objects it contains. Those berries there are edible. That speckled creature that bolted across my path might be tamed. That lake between those trees will be called Lake Opal or, more artistically, Dishwater Lake. This mist is a mountain — and that mountain must be conquered. Up a trackless slope climbs the master artist, and at the top, on a windy ridge, whom do you think he meets? The panting and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the book lasts forever.

From “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov


16 Responses to "“How to be a good reader”"

Oh my, he is keen on telling us what to think, isn’t he? I can’t help but wonder whether it’s the inevitable downfall of the writer-come-critic to tell us all to read for the stylistic devices he most wants to write. When was this delivered, imani? It’s all very modernist and phenomenological in its thinking. Close your eyes and take out some of the weight-throwing and it could be Woolf talking.


Come now. “Writer-come-critic”?

litlove there are a few things he said that I would argue with. I do think he takes it too far — though he has his reasons as we will say later on when I break copyright law — when he calls “masterpiece” works of fiction “fairy tales”. No one would be daft enough to base their historical knowledge on time periods primarily on novels, but that does not mean that they offer no glimpse into their realist settings whatsoever.

I did like his image of author as creator though, with that rib-pulling. He wrote these in the 1940s.

Steven Augustine ha! Fancy seeing you here.

I’ve always found Nabokov to be a very strong voice and a very demanding author. Not demanding in the sense of difficult to read, but demanding my full attention as if he were standing right next to me. I can almost hear him telling me to sit up straight, turn off the music and pay attention to his every word. I therefore find it impossible to read him in a haphazzard manner.

As to your comment about posting proper reviews vs. thoughts as you go along the path of reading, I say continue as you are. It’s what reading is all about for me. Reading a bit, meandering here and there, forming moment by moment opinions. I’m enjoying trailing after you.


Worry not, I promise to behave…relatively speaking (Vide Super)…(wink)…

Oh Pooh! I read what I want, when I want…….. I do have a bit of a rebellious streak.
No matter what authors write, I believe most write with their own views on things, just as when we tell our own stories to others. I believe this is also true of most biographies I’ve read, even though they interview and do research, it is still their veiw they are printing onto paper. Yes, I believe there are some authors who write more objectively than others. Also I believe authors write with a motive, I’m thinking of Charles Dickens, he wrote of poverty, debtors prisons, also of those horrible places that children were put. He wrote to educate society about those that lived in a lower economical setting. He wrote to stir up people’s heart’s to hopefully make a change for the better. I have read that Jane Austen did not like it that women could not inherit, thus women had to get married, not for love, but to survive. Nabakov writes and reads with his own viewpoint, outspoken it seems, but it’s his view, not mine.

The Nabokov lectures look interesting, I’ll be looking to see how the rest of your read turns out – if you’d recommend it or not when you get through a bit more of it.

I had a problem with the assesment of Dickens as fairy tale as well. I can certainly see it with “A Tale of Two Cities”, where the plot wraps up in romantic tradition, but the descriptions of daily drudgery that Dickens provides, say a coach ride in the pouring rain, has roots in descriptive realism that one-hundred odd years later the reader can still clearly imagine as true. I would hate to think that if I (this is a far-fetched hypothetical) deigned to write a novel depicting as accurately as possible my life and times, it would be rejected one hundred years later as pure fantasy.

We’re reading these lecture notes in a peculiar way if we take umbrage at Nabokov’s unequivocal presentation of his strong opinions. The audience to which these lectures were originally delivered signed on to hear, specifically, Nabokov’s version of answers to fundamental questions about the reading and writing of literature. It goes without saying that the claims Nabokov makes therein are his rather than (necessarily) yours or mine…but it should also go without saying that they merit serious consideration for the same reason (which is no doubt why Imani is bothering to post them).

What do we gain as students if we enter a classroom on day one with a sense of the inviolable equality of everyone’s opinions (especially our own)? Are we diminished by admitting that there are those who know more, or deeper, and with greater coherence than we do?

There will always be people who know more than we do, and also people behind them coming along that will know more than them. Life is a lesson. But, I will still have my freedom of opinions also, and the freedom to choose. Very excellent explanation Steven Augustine, thank you.

Hear hear, Steven Augustine.

Lectures on Literature is on my TBR pile! God, I just love his use of language. Buxom best-sellers!

That got a chuckle out of me too.

I’ve been wanting to read these lectures for ages. I read his series on Don Quixote and enjoyed them though didn’t always agree with him. Love the spur- of-the-moment reading and blogging 🙂

Imani I’m interested to read this after my recent read of Darkmans by Nicola Barker which I know if read in a hundred years time will offer a unique glimpse of life as it is here and now. Books on their way to you btw.

Yes, a lot of people seem to be intrigued by the lectures, whether they agree with Nabokov or not. Thanks so much for sending me to books — looking forward to them!

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