Response to Nabokov of What makes a Good Reader

In the essay “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov explains his ideas on what makes a good reader. Honestly, the ideas Nabokov explained in the essay seem right on but I believe some are justified. Nabokov mentioned that a reader should not identify with a character in the book. He also believes that doing so is a lowly form of imagination which a reader should not use. As a reader and writer, I can understand the point Nabokov is making, but from the stories I conduct I hope the reader can see themselves through me to fully understand me. When I mentioned “The stories I conduct” I mean the poems I write. Whenever I write a poem, I try to write it so the reader can picture how I feel or picture what I see through my mind. As a reader I can understand the point he is making. Whenever I read I try to picture everything from a different point of view. I do not really picture myself in the story, but I picture myself as an invisible person experiencing all the events with the characters. In my opinion that is pretty weird but it works. I get to experience and understand a character, but does that go against Nabokov’s ideas of what makes a great reader? I am using my imagination, I am using my artistic ability, it helps with my memory. What do you guys think?

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.

Nabokov and What Makes a Good Reader

In his essay “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov mentions in a definative way that the worst thing a person can do while reading is to identify with a character in a book. He goes on to say that this is a lowly form of imagination that no reader should use. While I agree with Nabokov to a certain extent, I don’t find anything wrong with identifying with a character in a book. When reading, there is no way you won’t find a certain character that you relate to in some way. I think it’s pretty common for people to look for little things in a character that they relate to in order to understand that person or that story better. Personally, I find no issue with this and am guilty of doing this while reading. However, I don’t think everything an author writes is supposed to be relatable. Nabokov wrote the infamous story “Lolita,” which is a story that is narrated by a pedophile and is attraction to a 12-year-old girl named Dolores. This novel is very disturbing and is still a very controversial topic to this day. While reading this, I don’t think Nabokov meant anyone to try and relate to this story in any way. I think he wrote it to shine a light on an often disregarded topic because many people find it uncomfortable to talk about. However, on social media and in music, the type of relationship showed in Lolita is often romanitized and seemingly praised. I think this is very harmful because the book explicitly discusses how it is abuse and how a man abused his power over a little girl. This should not be praised or something that is strived for. All in all, I think it’s great to relate to a character in a novel or story, however, we should not mix relatiblity with praising awful actions. This is harmful in so many ways and can end up hurting people who are younger and can be easily influenced.

What does Nabokov want?

If you have read what makes a good reader and a good writer then you should understand what Nabokov wants. He, quite explicitly, says he wants “an artistic harmonious balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind.” However, I disagree. Nabokov, in my interpretation of his writing, doesn’t know what he wants from readers. I know what he wants from writers, he wants enchanters, he wants wizards, and he wants deceivers. This is clearly stated when he says “A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.” But, when it comes to readers, he is unclear. He says that a reader must have an imagination, not a first-rate one, but an expansive imagination capable of comprehending the story, interpreting the story, then reinventing the author’s story. But he also says that “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.” The source of imagination is inspiration, and we take inspiration from everything we see, everything we do, and everything we know. The way I see it, Nabokov is saying that to be a truly greater reader, someone who is able to achieve a true artistic harmonious balance between author and reader, they must be able to imagine the world in an entirely different way. Real writers reinvent the world, they are not bound by a specific subject or event. They simply take a normal story or idea and reinvent it in a way that the reader has to utilize their imagination to understand it. But Nabokov says that if you relate to a character, then your imagination is lowly and undesirable. This perturbs me because it’s as if Nabokov is discrediting an entire approach to reading, interpreting, and envisioning. It’s as if he is gatekeeping his imagination to a specific interpretation. And this, I believe, muddies his claim as there are multiple ways of reading and writing and they shouldn’t be bound by an idyllic measure. I think that all reading and writing intrinsically have their own value and none are inherently better or worse. While Nabokov does say that he doesn’t want the reader to think this way and that he doesn’t explicitly say that relating to a character discredits the reader’s imagination, I believe that his claim of proper reading being an artistic harmonious balance is unable to be achieved or is at least fundamentally flawed when a writer sets a precedent upon the reader. The writer had a set of expectations for how a reader should or should not think upon beginning to read a piece of literature is something Nabokov himself warns against, “Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the 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 the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with
the worlds we already know.” While I do personally think Nabokov’s claim is inherently flawed and is contradicting in nature, I still think there is still value in it, just as there is still value in every form of imagination and interpretation.

Do Good Writers Make Good Readers?

In Vladimir Nabokov’s Good Readers and Good Writers, Nabokov defines what makes a good reader versus a good writer. When I finished reading his article, many thoughts were flying through my mind. One question in particular that came to my mind when I was reading was how much the qualities of good readers and good writers overlap, and if a good writer would make a good reader? As I analyzed Nabokov’s argument, I found that some of the traits of a good writer easily overlapped with those of good readers. For example, good writers must possess the four traits critical to good readers: imagination as storytellers, dictionaries & memories as teachers, and artistic sense as enchanters.

However, other traits that Nabokov noted as critical to being a good reader made me uncertain of if a good writer could earn the classification as a good reader. In order to be a good reader, Nabokov claims that we must study the worlds within books as brand new, paying very close attention to the details. We must visualize the author’s setting and characters by learning to curb our own imaginations. Good writers, though, do not accept the world in its entirety, and instead see it as the “potentiality for fiction”. So, if writers approach worlds with the intent to craft it anew, how can they immerse themselves in the details of the worlds of other writers without creating their own? Are good writers even able to curb their imaginations in order to do partake in good reading? While I am uncertain of the elasticity of Nabokov’s traits of good readers and good writers, I would like to ask him what his thoughts on this matter are. I wonder if it is possible to be too imaginative; if there is a point where a writer is so good that they could not possibly be a good reader.

The Objective Reader and Nabokov

I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgement will temper the intuitive heat. If, however, a would-be reader is utterly devoid of passion and patience - of an artist's passion and a scientist's patience - he will hardly enjoy great literature. (41)

Nabokov has proven to be highly controversial for his analysis of what makes a good reader and a good writer (actually for more than that, but that’s a different story). I disagreed with a fair amount of what he said at first, but as I read and reread what he wrote, I realized I agreed with him more than I thought I would.

Nabokov feels that a reader must be paradoxically detached from a story and still attached to it enough to analyze what’s going on, which made no sense to me when I first read it, but I realized that all he meant was that the reader shouldn’t attempt to relate themselves to the story at all. Which I still felt made the enjoyable act of reading too cold and detached from the original story. But I realized that Nabokov’s idea of literature was not the same as mine, he views literature as a truly “pure” art form, one that must create a world and a story free of outside influences, and one that must be consumed in the same vacuum. It might sound cold and almost heartless, which is true to an extent, but view it more as (as a reader) jumping into a new world with no recollection of the world outside, rather than viewing a world from outside a glass box.

One could almost say that the reader must see the work on the same “level of power” as they are on, it is not their story, it is not their world, but it is a world that the author made that the reader is stepping into. The reader cannot impose their personal experiences on their interpretation of the world the author has created, or try to mold the story to fit their own without placing themselves “over” the unique, well-written story Nabokov hopes every author would create. To experience a story in this way requires a mutual agreement of the author and reader to abide by the guidelines Nabokov has laid out, consciously or not, to create a brand-new world unlike any either party had ever seen, to fashion a spectacular, never-before-experienced story, featuring characters nobody’s ever met. To relate this brand-new world to anything in the author or reader’s life (either in its creation or consumption), would completely spoil this pristine vacuum-packed world. It would be like taking a foreign delicacy you had never tasted anything like before and covering it in ketchup, at least according to Nabokov.

Critique of Nabokov’s Theory

Although Nabokov presents a fascinating theory about how to be a good reader, I believe his theory is too arbitrary. I believe his theory forgets the fact that people read for many different purposes.

Nabokov claims that in order to truly appreciate the characters in a story, a reader should not relate to them. I, however, believe that motive for reading a story may be to find comfort in relating to a character. From the authors perspective, Nabokov fails to recognize that their purpose in writing may be to connect with a specific audience.

Furthermore, while re-reading is important to fully understanding a book, one may re-read simply to enjoy themselves. To enjoy the world of the book another time, not to probe at the authors meaning.

Whether people want to read to understand the authors full purpose, relate and empathize to characters, or to be taken back into a comforting world, they should still be considered good readers.

Opinions on Nobakov

I wanted to use this post to circle back to a conversation we had in class late last week, where several classmates and I raised our concerns/critiques of Nobakov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers.” I want to reiterate and clarify that, although I understand the need for a framework when reading in a literature class, I deeply disagree with his argument about things “good readers” do. Nobakov says that in order to be a “good reader” one must use an “impersonal imagination,” where they do not see themselves in the story nor connect it to their own life, but instead properly immerse themselves in the world they are reading about. I see where he is coming from here, but I stand by that a key rule of art–maybe the only rule art has–is that the artist gets no say in how people interpret their work. To try and demand how a reader sees your writing is not only impossible, but also somewhat narcissistic. It’s a sign of a god-complex: a hubris large enough to think that an author has the right to control the inner workings of a readers brain. One of the most valuable aspects of art is the variation in how different people interpret the same piece. When Nobakov tries to control how we read, he attacks that aspect of the process, which does a disservice to the readers and to the work itself.

What is a good reader?

What does it mean to be a good reader? Vladimir Nabokov argues that a good reader is one who rereads and one who doesn’t put themself in the story. The reader also detaches themself from the story. I see his idea of how when you reread a story you begin to see the bigger picture and what the author really wants to get across. I also can see what he means by detaching yourself. The author wants you to get something out of the story and if you put yourself in it and use your imagination you might miss it.

But at the same time shouldn’t a good reader be one who reads how they want and what they enjoy doing. Especially if reading for your own enjoyment isn’t the biggest purpose of reading to enjoy yourself. Sometimes people read to lose themself and transport themself to a different place and does that mean they are a bad reader? Overall, I see Nabokov’s argument but is his way the only way to be a good reader or are there others?

Nabokov’s take on good readers

Vladimir Nabokov has a strong stance on what makes a good reader. He makes many good points such as good readers are good deceivers, re-readers, and observers. What really struck me about his argument was that a good reader has impersonal imagination and artistic delight. Nabokov highlights that in order to have these traits as a reader, one has to detach from the story and stay aloof while also taking pleasure in said aloofness at the same time. When I read that part of “Good Readers and Good Writers,” I wasn’t sure that I agreed with that argument. However, through the analysis of his argument and further thought on it, I now see where he is coming from. When I have read in the past, I have found myself getting so consumed in the literature that I don’t necessarily enjoy it. His point that a good reader knows when and when not to use their imagination has stuck with me because I find myself looking too much into what the author means literally and not using my imagination. I think the pleasure in the aloofness of a reader is key as well because if a reader is simply just detaching from the story without pleasure, it is difficult to enjoy or imagine things. He concludes the paragraph by stating, “We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people,” which essentially argues that the artistic delight aspect allows the balance between the author’s mind and reader’s mind (41). Paying close attention and using imagination when reading these details allows the reader to visualize the literature without getting too consumed.

Can you read well and for fun? Nabokov

After reading Vladimir Nabokov’s “Good readers and good writers” I found the passage that explains how you cannot read well if you identify with a character or event in the writing very interesting. When I read for fun I usually relate to a character or event to sort of put myself in the position of the character to understand their thoughts and feelings. But after reading Nabokov I understand his point of view. He argues that when you relate to a character you may become biased or immersed in their story so much that you may miss important details about the rest of the plot. I understand this if you are trying to fully understand the book or if its for an assignment but I wonder if this apply’s to when you read for fun. After I reread the passage I don’t think that it does because if you read for fun you usually read for the story, you read to get that tingle down your spine and maybe, when reading for fun, to get that tingle you need to relate to a character to get inside their head and feel what they are feeling. Also when you read for fun you don’t necessarily read to understand all of the content of that book unlike you would do for school. When I read a book I try to imagine the plot like its somewhere i’ve been to, as Nabokov said, “get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal”. This helps me imagine the characters as if I am in the world the author has created.

The Old Blog is Dead! Long Live the Old Blog!

For many years, we used the Blogger platform for the AP Lit blog. Since it is owned by Google, it integrates pretty seamlessly with your Google accounts — which made it easy to use, in some respects — but it is a very limited and bug-ridden platform. So this year, we have decided to construct a new class blog from scratch using the most more powerful and stable WordPress platform.

If you are interested, though, in seeing what past AP Lit students have been thinking and writing about, feel free to wander over to the old blog.

old blog

Nabokov and Good Reading

Nabokov’s perspective is very interesting and easy to digest. You can’t look at a book before you’ve read it the same way you can look at a painting. The art is only fully displayed for you when you re-read. This is similar to re-watching movies and getting different things from it each time. This is because you know the story and you now have that leverage to interpret the dialogue or imagery. I have shown friends shows with major plot changes that assume they can review the show after watching a couple episodes. This is very frustrating and annoying. It is a fair point to make that when you dip your toes into a story that you don’t always want to go all in from the get go. Not every piece of media has an attention grabbing opening that hooks you. Some times, you have to swim a little farther before your caught on the hook. There is no solid answer to solve this small conundrum. There is advice and second opinions but that’s it. An example for me would be when I began watching Neon Genesis Evangelion, I automatically interpreted the entire show to be about a depressed kid who gains confidence through fighting with giant machines. I’m so glad I came back and finished it because it is one of the best written shows ever made

Evening Thoughts on Complex Individuality and Mutual Recognition

As I read over the criteria list for the blog post, nothing quite struck me right away. My summer reading book Exit, Pursued By a Bear was mildly entertaining at best, and no other book I’ve read recently contained any depth. However, while taking a break from my Criminal Minds obsession this summer, I tried watching the new hit HBO series Euphoria. Although the show is filled with drugs, sex, and lots of sparkles, there is something else that makes it so captivating: the complex individuality of each character.

Like no other show I’ve seen before, Euphoria accurately depicts the struggles of high school, addiction, abusive parents, and every thing in between. What truly amazed me when watching it was the way it that showed life for what it is: really f-ing hard, but something beautiful at the same time. Without romanticizing the struggles of each character, Euphoria demonstrates that every single person you´ll encounter is going through something, whether you know it or not. The show does not focus on one specific character, but rather how each of their complex stories are intertwined in some way.

Nabokov´s concept of mutual recognition goes hand-in-hand with the idea of individuality because it recognizes that each person is more than just a binary, that we are all complex, unique humans. And such is the beauty of real life: we are all complex individuals that are living our own story in tandem with one another.

The Comfort of Rereading

In Vladimir Nabokov’s opinion, rereading is essential to being a good reader. In order to read a story to the best of your ability, you have to reread it, or at least reread the important parts. I somewhat disagree. To me, rereading is indeed an essential component of fully understanding and appreciating a story to its fullest extent, however, the most valuable benefit of rereading is the comfort that comes with rereading a good story.

There is nothing I love more than reading my favorite books. I can’t count the amount of times I have set down a newly-finished book only to think, “I can’t wait until I can read this again!” It’s like entering a world, only to leave bittersweetly, melancholy to go, but hopeful of your eventual reentry. After falling completely in love with the characters contained between the front and back cover, after yearning to be their best friends, you have to leave them. Rereading is like paying them a visit, seeing how they’re doing these days, relishing in your old friendship.

I have a terrible memory. I’ll forget conversation topics in the middle of the conversation, and what I was just doing in the middle of doing it. It’s a joke between me and my friends, but honestly I find that it has its uses. I can read a book or series as many times as I want. If I wait long enough, I’ll forget what happened, the characters’ names, the climax. I reread books, rewatch movies, re-listen to podcasts, and re-experience everything I can. Whether it’s a picture book from my childhood, each page bursting with nostalgia, or a novel I remember with well-written characters, there’s nothing more comforting. To me, it’s like getting under a blanket, soft and worn from use, and already warm. It’s like exploring a beautiful landscape for the first time, but knowing which corners the most gorgeous sights wait beyond. There’s no shame in rereading. There’s only comfort and the knowledge that you’ve made Nabokov proud.