Summary of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers”

Vladimir Nabokov's picture
Vladimir Nabokov's Good Readers and Good Writers.

Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” succinctly describes the features of good readers and good writers. Without creating any redundancy, he explains what makes one a good writer and a good reader.

First of all, Nabokov suggests readers not to make any generalizations before even starting to read a book. He says that reading a book with preconceived notions about it leads you to misinterpret the work. For him, good readers consider any work of art as invariably the creation of a new world. However, once you have closely studied the work, you can link it to your real-world experiences. He asserts “great novels are great fairy tales.” He further says that, on one hand, writers of genius employ time and space, the colors of the seasons, and the movements of the muscles and minds and express them in their surprisingly unique ways. On the other hand, minor writers invest their words in the ornamentation of the commonplace, i.e. they do not create any new world.

In Nabokov’s words, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is re-reader.” The art of reading stands between readers and artistic appreciation. He prioritizes rationality while reading because he says that the only instrument used in a book should be the mind.

Since the master artist uses imagination in creating books, the readers also should use imagination. However, there are two varieties of imagination in the readers’ case. First, there is a lowly kind of imagination that supports the emotions of the characters. They find a world they already know and identify themselves in the particular characters of a book. He wants readers not to use this kind of imagination. He rather seeks impersonal imagination and artistic delight. An artistic balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind should be established. The emotional factors, definitely, affect us, but we should remain a little aloof from this impact. A reader should develop a temperament of artistic and scientific temperament. Those, who do not have an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience, hardly enjoy great literature.

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Literature is an invention. Hence, to call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. A major writer is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter at the same time, though the enchanter in them works dominantly. A writer being a storyteller, we want them to entertain us, excite us, and let us participate in their emotions. If we consider a writer a teacher, we want them to give us moral education, and knowledge of facts. Nabokov believes a great writer is always a great enchanter. From the enchanter, “we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.”

Hence, great writers blend magic, story, and lesson in their work. In order to test the quality of a novel, we need to merge the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to enjoy and grasp the magic, a wise reader reads the books of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine.

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