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Do you Think You're a good Reader? Take the Nabokov Test


Before teaching his course on European Literature at Cornell, Nabokov spoke of the qualities any good reader should have and the literary benefits that come with them.

Literature is undoubtedly one of the most important resources of what is commonly called “the civilizational process”. It has existed in several forms —oral, written, shared, individual— and in every case it has revealed itself to be an effective method to spread knowledge, an enriching form of entertainment and a means to subjective transformation. Reading is a movement of the intellect and as such it provides other ways of seeing and thinking, other possibilities for life. To read well, then, is of utmost importance. If, as Roberto Calasso asserts, the gods fled from this world to find refuge in books, then we must do what is necessary to bring them back.

In the mid-1950s, Vladimir Nabokov was a literature professor in Cornell. This season has been preserved as a series of books: a course that is known as European Literature and another on Russian Literature. These two volumes where edited afterwards and even though the writer was known for never improvising –– always having a speech prepared for the class he was about to teach or for a televised interview, he did so in one delightful class.

In Cornell, before he officially began teaching his course and talking about Stevenson, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Ulysses, The Metamorphosis and La Recherche, the author of Lolita spoke of reading. “Good readers and good writers” was the title the editors gave this introduction latter, since Nabokov described the wonders of the act of reading. As a faithful representative of the so-called “close reading”, this “curious reader” who makes an appearance ever so often in the Hispanic literature of the Golden Century, Nabokov had a very precise and clear idea about the forces that converged during literature, of all that was at play.

In this preface, among many useful ideas, there is a provocative test which the author of Lolita wanted to take in order to define whether they were good or bad readers. The quiz

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.

As Harold Bloom now, Nabokov was always a strong refractory to the theoretical approach to literature; and like Borges, he preferred hedonistic reading ­–– the kind that gives pleasure. That is why owning a dictionary is more important than knowing the historical context of a text. That is also why being able to remember what has been read might be more advantageous than reading with the purpose of analyzing style to replicate it later.

The qualities that Nabokov values the most might seem elemental, but is this not where the possibility of a miracle is born?

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