Book Reviews

Writers on reading: Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov quoteIn 1980 Vladimir Nabokov wrote an essay called Good Readers and Good Writers which included this comment about reading and re-reading which seems contradictory the first time you see it. On closer inspection though I think what he’s reflecting is that the first time we read a particular text we don’t appreciate many of its subtleties. We’re so busy engaged in the physical process of reading, moving the eye across, down, over to absorb information, we don’t notice all the connections between different parts of the book or the nuances of meaning. Nor, until we get to the end do we also recognise the significance of particular episodes.  Only when we read it again can we see how the parts combine into the whole.  Nabokov claims that it’s only on a third or fourth reading, that we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.

Thats certainly been my experience when I’ve had to read texts for study purposes. I read it once just to get the idea of the story line, the main characters and how the narrative flows. But it’s not until a few re-reads that I appreciate its finer points and retain more of the information gleaned from the pages. It’s a rewarding approach. If I hadn’t started to re-read Jane Austen about 15 years ago I think I would forever have been perplexed by comments on how ‘witty’ she could be. It took maturity of years for me to ‘get’ the style.

But re-reading one text multiple times can be very time consuming so not surprising that as I look through the stacks and stacks of books in my home, I notice have few of them  I’ve read more than once. They’re usually ones that fall into the general category of  “a classic”. Very seldom are they contemporary works.

I finish a book, decide it was wonderful and I would really like to read it again. One day. Sometime in the undefined future. That day never comes because guess what. there is another new title out or another new author to explore. and so the loved book of last year just collects cobwebs, feels forlorn.

Which means in Nabokov’s mind I’m not really a reader. The ideal for him is depth, having total understanding and knowledge of a particular text. He quotes Flaubert’s comment:“What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books.”

It would be wonderful to think I could become a master reader just through a comprehensive knowledge of six books. But it doesn’t seem realistic. How many books could we name that would be worth the kind of attention Flaubert and Nabokov advocate?  Just six books from all the millions that exist – they would have to be truly remarkable. For sure I can think of six that I feel are pretty special but if I could read only those for the rest of my life, would my attitude to them change? There’s a risk I’d be reading them so many times that my love of them would wane.

So as tempting as it would be from a financial point of view not to have to buy anything new, I suspect I’d feel I was missing out. What if some new author produced a work that trumped one of my existing choices – how would I know about that if I just stuck to my half a dozen texts. Sorry to disappoint you Mr Nabokov but I’m not going to narrow my horizons this much. If that means I can’t be a real reader I’m just going to have to live with that….



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

12 thoughts on “Writers on reading: Vladimir Nabokov

  • Ha! This post makes me chuckle. I, too, find myself reading more carefully as I mature; yet, I am still greedy about reading! I have been enjoying re-reading books I read 10 and 20+ years ago, while also trying to read new titles —poor me! Flaubert’s half dozen books might be something I would be willing to try for a year….but it won’t be 2016!

  • If one could read a book as fast as one could watch a regular movie, I’d be on Team Nabokov. But alas, reading requires more time, and time is the resource that we always find ourselves lacking. Like you, I also dump a very select number of books in the to-read-in-the-undefined-future shelf. Fortunately, I’ve been able to actually reread some of those books thanks to readalongs organized by book club friends.

    • having a book club that reads what I want to read would be an ideal answer. sadly the club I’m in seems to be choosing a lot of young adult stuff right now which doesn’t light my fire much

  • Have you read his essay? It is most excellent. I don’t think Nabokov would advocate reading only six books and nothing else, after all he certainly read more than six books over the course of his lifetime! I think he is advocating for a certain kind of reading, one in which we get to know intimately a small handful of books which is a doable thing I think. But is it something I want to do? I’ll have to get back to you on that! 🙂

  • Although I agree that you can’t really appreciate nuances on just one reading I totally agree with you. It’s fun to reread some books…but won’t we learn so much more by introducing many new ideas instead of understanding a couple ideas really well?

  • This sort of thing is probably true for whatever media/information you choose to consume — TV, movies, music, art, music, etc. Of course you gain a deeper understanding of it when you see it again and again and take the time to give it serious thought! But that doesn’t meant that one-off reading doesn’t “count” and trying new things is just as important as cultivating appreciation for the well-worn stuff.

    • Interesting connection to other forms of art. It’s certainly true for me in terms of paintings – the more times I see a piece of work, the more I begin to connect with it

  • I agree that there is a lot to be said for re-reading. Reading something the first time, you focus too much on plot, on what happens next, on how thing will end. Rereading, knowing how things turn out, you can focus on all the subtleties as you say. My example from experience is Crime and Punishment – thought it was just ok the first time, absolutely loved it the second time, waiting for an excuse to read it again.

    • Thats certainly a book that will reward multiple readings. I suppose with some books they are so plot driven that you wouldn’t gain much by a second read (I’m thinking of crime fiction for example)

  • When I was young, I reread often, probably because my book supply was limited. But I do recall those books more than ones I’ve read recently.

    I have purchased a few books this year for the purpose of rereading them: Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Women, and Sleeping with the Enemy.

    And I have a stack of books on my nightstand for that purpose.

    Enjoy! Great post, and here are MY WEEKLY UPDATES


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