“How to be a good reader”
Posted July 28, 2007on:
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