“Good Readers and Good Writers” (from Lectures on Literature)
Vladimir Nabokov (originally delivered in 1948)

 

My course, among other things, is a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary
structures.
“How to be a Good Reader” or “Kindness to Authors”—something of that sort might serve to
provide a subtitle for these various discussions of various authors, for my plan is to deal lovingly,
in loving and lingering detail, with several European Masterpieces. A hundred years ago,
Flaubert in a letter to his mistress made the following remark: Commel’on serait savant si l’on
connaissait bien seulement cinq a six livres: “What a scholar one might be if one knew well only
some half a dozen books.”
In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of
generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If
one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from
the book before one has started to understand it. 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 that 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. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then
let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.
Another question: Can we expect to glean information about places and times from a novel? Can
anybody be so naive as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom
best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels? But
what about the masterpieces? Can we rely on Jane Austen’s picture of landowning England with
baronets and landscaped grounds when all she knew was a clergyman’s parlor? And Bleak
House, that fantastic romance within a fantastic London, can we call it a study of London a
hundred years ago? Certainly not. And the same holds for other such novels in this series. The
truth is that great novels are great fairy tales—and the novels in this series are supreme fairy
tales.
Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for
writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which
may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises
which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left
the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world;
they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional
patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within
these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to
recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. But the real writer, the fellow who sends planets
spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of
author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself. The art of writing is a
very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of
fiction. The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist
at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says “go!” allowing the
world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and
superficial parts. The writer is the first man to mop it and to form the natural objects it contains.
Those berries there are edible. That speckled creature that bolted across my path might be tamed. That lake between those trees will be called Lake Opal or, more artistically, Dishwater
Lake. That mist is a mountain—and that mountain must be conquered. Up a trackless slope
climbs the master artist, and at the top, on a windy ridge, whom do you think he meets? The
panting and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the
book lasts forever.
One evening at a remote provincial college through which I happened to be jogging on a
protracted lecture tour, I suggested a little quiz—ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten
the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. I have
mislaid the list, but as far as I remember the definitions went something like this. Select four
answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:
1. The reader should belong to a book club.
2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
6. The reader should be a budding author.
7. The reader should have imagination.
8. The reader should have memory.
9. The reader should have a dictionary.
10. The reader should have some artistic sense.
The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or
historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination,
memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and
in others whenever I have the chance.
Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one
can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.
And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously
moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work
upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about,
this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to
move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and
development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In
reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as
we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its
details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as
we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous
masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no
matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is
not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind,
the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.
Now, this being so, we should ponder the question how does the mind work when the sullen
reader is confronted by the sunny book. First, the sullen mood melts away, and for better or
worse the reader enters into the spirit of the game. The effort to begin a book, especially if it is
praised by people whom the young reader secretly deems to be too old-fashioned or too serious,
this effort is often difficult to make; but once it is made, rewards are various and abundant. Since the master artist used his imagination in creating his book, it is natural and fair that the
consumer of a book should use his imagination too.
There are, however, at least two varieties of imagination in the reader’s case. So let us see which
one of the two is the right one to use in reading a book. First, there is the comparatively lowly
kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature.
(There are various subvarieties here, in this first section of emotional reading.) A situation in a
book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we
know or knew. Or, again, a reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a
landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. 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.
So what is the authentic instrument to be used by the reader? It is impersonal imagination and
artistic delight. What should be established, I think, is an artistic harmonious balance between
the reader’s mind and the author’s mind. 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. To be quite objective in these matters is of
course impossible. Everything that is worthwhile is to some extent subjective. For instance, you
sitting there may be merely my dream, and I may be your nightmare. But what I mean is that the
reader must know when and where to curb his imagination and this he does by trying to get
clear the specific world the author places at his disposal. We must see things and hear things, we
must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people. The color of Fanny
Price’s eyes in Mansfield Park and the furnishing of her cold little room are important.
We all have different temperaments, and 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 judgment 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.
Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the
Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy
came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he
lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is
important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering
go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.
Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and
truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always
deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of
protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and
wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.
Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this
way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of
the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told
about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the campfire. But he was the little
magician. He was the inventor. There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a
storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller,
teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major
writer.
To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for
emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A
slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer.
Propagandist, moralist, prophet—this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only
for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts. Alas, I have known people
whose purpose in reading the French and Russian novelists was to learn something about life in
gay Paree or in sad Russia. Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and
it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his
genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.
The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression
of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the
story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought
which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as
any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the
quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of
science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart,
not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even
though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is
both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the
castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.