Vladimir Nabokov & the Empathetic Reader

Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to his book Lectures on Literature contains one sentiment that I find to be particularly rabble-rousing.

There is the comparatively lowly kind [of imagination] which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature... A situation is in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or someone we know or knew... Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.
Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers”

There’s a humorous bit of what I perceive to be self-awareness at the end of that quote, when Nabokov acknowledges that all of his dictations about what makes a good or bad reader are really nothing more than his personal preference (This… is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use). But that’s besides the point.

One of literature’s greatest powers is the power to make a unique, individual reader feel seen. We spend our lives calling out into the abyss, begging question, “Does anyone else feel the way I do, or am I alone?” It is art–literature and other media–that answers the call: “No. You are not alone. Look here, we feel the same way.”

Nabokov identifies this power as a fatal weakness on the part of the reader. While his argument that readers should seek exposure to new experiences is sensible, to discount the personal connection a reader develops with text that they can specifically empathize with is overkill.

It is also impossible for readers to embrace such an impersonal handling of their reading. As Nabokov himself says, when a reader is reminded of a personal experience while reading of some situation or another, that situation will be intensely felt. The reader cannot choose whether or not to relate to something, it’s just instinctive. And it would be foolish to actively try to block out any feelings of empathy inspired by a text while in the process of reading it. If the goal of reading is to have some visceral experience, then the reader that heeds Nabokov’s instruction would be swimming against the tide that conveniently flowed towards that goal.

All that being said, Nabokov’s ultimate message is valuable. Readers should definitely seek out literature that heralds new and foreign experiences. However, when they come across literature that calls upon their personal experience, they should embrace that feeling of empathy rather than squash it.

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