Writers on reading: Vladimir Nabokov

In 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….


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