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Nabakov’s Definitions of a Good Reader

In Vladimir Nabokov’s essay, Good Readers and Good Writers (from Essays on Literature), he lays down the ground rules to become a good reader and a good writer. o become a good reader’s and good writers, one must have certain skills. In this essay Vladimir describe much about these skill in become good at reading and writing. He also talks about how rereading is one of the important key to becoming a good reader and good writer.

One evening at a remote provincial college through which Nabakov happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, the writer 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. The list somehow reminds me of the bill of reader’s right that circulated quite extensively around the blogsphere. 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.

My choices are 2, 7, 8, and 9. Technically speaking 1 should also attribute to a good reader because group discussion should provoke new meaning and inspire deeper thoughts on the meaning of the book. Items 2 and 4 are correlated, but 2 preponderates over 4 to me. Many a time I enjoy reading literary fiction, which often asserts, delves in, meditates on an idea, such as family, relationship, love, and forgiveness, without stitching a story with much action. I often resonate with a book more profusely if I can relate to and/or identify with the protagonist. Imagination is conducive to being a good reader. It is the bridge to the author’s mind as to what the words really say in a book. Is the novel autobiographical in incidents or just emotions? What is the underlying meaning behind the upheaval in The Master and Margarita? Imagination comes the rescue when the surface of the writing doesn’t seem to make any sense. Memory is my measure of how great a book is—whether it will be a classic or just another good read. What impression does a book make on me? How long does this impression last? Does the book beg re-reading? A dictionary, along with a pen and a notebook, is indispensable to a reader. I have never encountered more new vocabulary than when I read John Banville or Alan Bennett. I might not always have a dictionary handy but I make sure to jot down words to look up later.

18 Responses

  1. I’d say 2, 7, 8, and 10 – I’m not crazy about 10, but I like it the best of the other options. This list is interesting! Did Nabokov have an opinion about which of these attributes a “good reader” should possess?

    • 7 and 10 are almost the same to me. One who is endowed with an artistic sense will be imaginative. Nabakov didn’t elaborate on which are the most important but he does challenge his students to possess at least 4 of these traits.

  2. What in interesting list. Some of those seem odd to me – like why do you have to have seen the movie version?? I suppose I would probably say that it is usually some combination of 2, 3, 7, 8, 9.

    • I think Nabakov means by seeing a book adopted from a movie, which the reverse movie tie-in. 3, I admit, is important in contributing to world literature.

  3. I loved this post and plan to print off the list of 10 attributes of a good writer. This is worth reviewing and pondering.

    I am like you, in that I prefer to read a book that delves into character motives and relationships and therefore contains less action and adventure. In trying to write this fictional story, however, I am learning that I truly struggle developing a compelling conflict, predominantly because I do not have the reading experience to draw upon.

    I love your definition of imagination: a bridge to the author’s mind as to what the words really say. That is brilliant!

    • Home by Marilynne Robinson is one novel that delves into the motives and relationships of a family. It does have a slow plot but the point of the novel is to show the emotions and motives of unremarkable and fallible characters.

  4. Hmm, I picked 7, 8, 9, 10:

    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.

    I think the way I’m interpreting 10 is the same as 7. To understand art (whether it be visual, literature, music, or film) I think one needs to have some kind of artistic sense to truly appreciate a work, even if that doesn’t mean one needs to be a buddy artist or an aspiring writer. Basically which means you need to have a pliable imagination that can sync up with the artist’s imagination, even if imperfectly.

    I can see your point about the book club if it’s taken to mean a good reader needs to have people to communicate and discuss a book with. However, if it read literally as, “YOU HAVE TO JOIN A BOOK CLUB” I’m not sure I agree that a reader needs to be a member of an actual book club to be a good reader.

    My problem with # 2 is something you hinted at with your objections with # 4. There are many examples of fiction where the heroine’s moral standing or who the actual “star” of the book is ambiguous (such as Milton’s Paradise Lost is satan, Adam, Jesus, or some combination the hero or heroine? And although the Romantics thought highly of Lucifer as a romantic anti-hero, Milton I think makes clear we’re not supposed to be rooting for him). What about a book like Nabakov’s Lolita? There are people I don’t want to identify with in this world, but whose motivations, foibles, sins, transgressions, and thought-processes I still find interesting despite that.

    • I enjoy reading your thoughtful comments.I continue to have issues between 7 and 10. I also feel that they are related but I don’t think I have an artistic sense and I have been functioning okay as a reader. 🙂 Out of my curiosity and imaginative mind I do constantly ask questions in my mind while I read. As to 2, I can only identify with the reason behind the actions of the heroes/heroines.

  5. I saw this somewhere else a while back and I am going to give the same smart aleck response I gave when I first saw it.

    A good reader should read. Period. Full Stop.

  6. I rather like the smart aleck response above: a good reader should read. Period. Full stop.

    Be that as it may:

    No. 2 would sometimes be true, but I’ve encountered many characters/heros/heroines who are fascinating but with whom I have nothing in common. But then, I believer reading should expand our horizons and perhaps, also, our sympathies.

    7 & 8 would both be helpful. Some of us have these gifts in abundance. Others of us must be more methodical.

    9. Reading is always an opportunity to discover new vocabulary and/or shades of meaning not previously associated with a given word.

    10. Having an artistic sense would helpful, though we’re not all fortunate enough to possess this attribute, at least initially. Hopefully, it is something which we can discover and develop or enhance through our reading.

    • To sum up, a good reader should be aware and sensitive of the author’s meaning, which might require re-reading and reflecting upon what’s read. A reader should also be predisposed to the background of the author as well as history pertaining to the works. A good reader should be able to understand what is written on the pages at the expense of time and uncompromised effort.

  7. Having just come across this blog, I homed in on this particular post straight away. Typically, I am not one to comment to random blogs, but the ‘Definition of a Good Reader’ truly is an interesting concept.

    On one hand, I can understand why it would be said by some that ‘A good reader is someone who reads. Period. Full stop’… On the other hand, this definition is a bit too simplistic for me since, in my opinion, not all books are created equally.

    I relate very strongly to Eric’s post, his choices of numbers 7, 8, 9, 10 and subsequent explanation.

    I have a major soft-spot for classic literature – a preference that, now days, is often dismissed as ‘stuffy’… or even ‘elitist’.

    But, there is a purity to works that were written solely for the sake of being READ – with absolutely no thought having been given to whether the rights to said story could be later sold and transformed into another form of media. Additionally, such works don’t pander to a modern audience – people who have countless other forms of entertainment to choose from and, as a whole, love anything that provides ‘instant gratification’ and often become frustrated with anything that takes too long to ‘get into’ or is too much of an ‘investment’ of time.

    I don’t know. Perhaps this list should have at least one choice concerning the TYPE of books an individual favors – not for the purpose of being ‘exclusive’, but surely some books have more to offer than others… don’t they?

    • The more I read everyone’s comments, and that some of you lean toward the last 4 criteria (7, 8, 9, and 10), the more I’m convinced that a good reader is one who is able to discern the meaning of a work of literature–classics, literary fiction, and not just popular fiction. The works in this genre often have its meaning embedded in between the lines.

  8. I love Nabakov’s list. It gives a lot of food for thought.

  9. whats the authors argument? his exigence throughout the piece?

  10. Nabokov completely dismisses 1-6 and indicates that the last four are important traits for a good reader. The second, identifying with the characters, is the absolute worst thing a reader should do, in Nabokov’s not-so-humble opinion, because it prevents an objective understanding of the book. Not on this list, but stressed in the lecture, is Nabokov’s primary assertion that a good reader must be a re-reader. He says that “one cannot ~read~ a book: one can only reread it.”

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