Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

On Being a Good Reader

I was approaching 50 when I decided to return to university full-time to study for an MA. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I loved it! I loved the time I had to read and the freedom to choose what to read. I loved the library. I loved reading books and articles, following trails of references, browsing among the journals, discussing what I had read with my fellow students. I was impressed by the librarian and she has since become a very good friend. I learned the pleasures of reading, following an idea, chasing up more ideas, being a serious reader.

One of the things I love about blogging is the research that it necessitates: for images, biographical details, finding obscure facts and quirky opinions. I recaptured some of the earlier pleasure of studying when I came upon the idea of the good reader and decided to follow it up. It necessitated reserving a library book!

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

I had enjoyed Howards End is on the Landing, so was pleased when my sister gave me a copy of Jacob’s Room. She said it was ‘a bit like a blog only all at once’, which is good description. I found myself taking notes of things to follow up, especially related to Muriel Spark, who’s centenary is this year, and I have already joined in a readalong with a review of Memento Mori.

She also reflected on Vladimir Nabokov’s literary criticism, and his description of a good reader. Here are her thoughts:

A good reader pays attention to everything. The surface of the prose. The structure of the book. The tense. The point of view. Perhaps to those even before the characters. Then comes the setting. The story can often come last. (145)

For many, many readers the statement that ‘the story can often come last’ would be incomprehensible. It will not surprise you that for Susan Hill a good reader often rereads.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s comments had influenced Susan Hill, so I decided to look them up. This required a library reservation, which always makes me feel like a serious reader! It’s a big heavy book, fetched from Exeter Library Stack (whatever that means). Big heavy books also make me feel like a serious reader. I can be so facile.

Susan Hill’s reference was to Nabokov’s introductory lecture: Good Readers and Good Writers. What does Nabokov say makes a good reader? Well, he identifies first those who approach reading to support their emotions, to recall their own past, to identify with the characters. This, he says, is reading of a ‘comparatively lowly kind’ (4). His good reader, on the other hand, approaches the book with the willingness and the imagination to enter the world created by the writer.

We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece. … The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. (4-5)

And he remarks on the necessity of rereading to be a good reader, to appreciate the three facets of a good writer: magic, story and lesson. In the lectures he goes on to show how this is done by Charles Dickens in Bleak House and Jane Austen in Mansfield Park among others.

A good reader?

It seems that the good reader is one who pays attention to more than the story in a book, who pays attention to how the story is told. For many people this is more than they want from their reading, and that does not make them bad readers of course.

I think in the terms of the two writers referred to here, who are also prolific readers, I do not count as a very good reader. But I am working on it. And I intend to go on by studying the world-building of writers (and paying attention to it in my own writing) and I plan to do more rereading.

New Book by Harold Harvey 1920

And I think I will still leave space to read for the story, for comfort and also to read with that lowly kind of imagination that means I am an emotional reader in Nabokov’s terms.

I will also practice being aloof. Writers need loofs. (Old joke).


Jacob’s Room is Full of Books: a year of reading by Susan Hill (2017) Profile Books. A gift from a sister.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov edited by Fredson Bowers (1980) Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The library book.


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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries

Banning Books

Why do people in authority ban a book? They fear the power of the book. They fear the ideas or knowledge within the covers. As so often happens when you ban something it draws attention to it. Remember Mrs Thatcher banning the voices of the IRA on the news. In the recent Banned Books Week some surprising titles were revealed to have appeared on banned lists, especially in US in school districts where they take a different line about things and have different processes.

Banning books to protect children

213 Jenny_Lives_with_Eric_and_MartinFrequently a ban on a book is intended to prevent the corruption of the minds of the young. Or to protect them from ideas that adults believe might be too difficult. Behind the idea of banning books for children is a distrust of their ability to explore their world. I remember schools being banned from using books about living with gay parents. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche (1983) was notorious. Local Governments were also banned in 1988 from promoting a homosexual lifestyle and ‘the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a pretended family relationship’ (the notorious section 28). The world had gone mad.

The Scottish Book Trust noted that these books about or for children had been banned somewhere: 213 1940 AnneFrankSchoolPhoto

  • Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Diaries of Anne Franks
  • Forever Judy Bloom
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Judy Bloom writes about themes that interest young adults, their relationships with their parents, with people of their own age, fractured families, sexuality, strong emotions. She was one of the first to do so and earned a loyal readership as a result. The idea that childhood is a time of innocence is also challenged in different ways by Alice and by Huckleberry Finn.

Young girls with spirit are notoriously dangerous to those with absolutist beliefs. That must be why The Diaries of Anne Frank appears on the list.

Books that challenge social (sexual) norms

Then there are books that shock a little, intended to push the boundaries of what is discussed, what is known.

213 LolitaThe list begins with Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It would be hard to read Lolita without noticing that Herbert Humbold is a self-serving monster. It is a tough read because he sounds so plausible. People behave in bad ways and appear plausible. Those who wanted to ban Lolita mistook the messenger for the message. I suspect that many of them had not read Lolita.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence was completed in 1928. Penguin published it in the UK in 1960 and a court case tested both the book and the obscenity laws. Lady Chatterley was notoriously ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’, according to chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones. Lawrence’s particular joyfulness at sex challenged assumptions and made explicit the shocking idea that women enjoyed sex, had sexual desires. And it also offended class sensibilities. It was acquitted under obscenity laws in 1960.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness also from 1928 provoked extreme reactions: ‘I’d rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this book’ fulminated James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express. Its subject, lesbians, were seen to challenge the family values that the Express stood for. The Well also suffered under obscenity laws, although the legal battles over the book increased the visibility of lesbians in both British and American society.

Not about sexual norms but more about decency and a fear that it ‘wallowed in repulsiveness’ Barbara Comyns’s 1958 novel Who was Changed and Who was Dead was also banned. There is an interesting article about it on the PEN America website by Matt Bell. He argues that we should rejoice in its lack of moralising which promotes change ‘including an increase in moral complexity, intellectual range and truest empathy’.

And the political ideas

Banning the books with political themes is mystifying to our modern sensibilities, with exception of the Rushdie. Banned titles have included

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Frankenstein by Mark Shelley
  • Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

213 PerseoplisBut again, the powerful do not like challenges to the status quo. Or do not like readers’ minds being exposed to ideas that might challenge their certainties, even if the challenge is itself a critique of the opposing ideas, as is Animal Farm. And they don’t like books that promote girls and women as active and brave and determining their own futures as Persepolis does. It is graphic novel about a young Iranian girl during the period of the fall of the Shah and after. The challenges to the book’s place in schools and on the curriculum in the US is considered on the Banned Books Week website, Case Study: Persepolis by Maggie Jacoby, September 2015.

Books are good for healthy debate and challenge some questionable assumptions. In the forefront of reminding us about banned books are librarians, fighters for freedom of speech. That’s another reason to support libraries and librarians. And so too is the writer’s organisation PEN, and you can find the English PEN website here. Support them too!

What banned books have most grated with you? Is there ever a case for banning a book? What do you think?

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Libraries