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Workshop: Blog

David Bergenon on what makes a good reader

The Giller Prize-winning author of The Time in Between looks at what makes a good reader and gives a nod to Nabokov.

Several years ago I picked up Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature at a used bookstore. What a find. In three volumes we have Nabokov's lectures that he gave at Cornell and Wellesley over a twenty-year period. He deals with Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Kafka, a second volume talks about Russian writers, the third is dedicated to Don Quixote. In his introduction, 'Good Readers and Good Writers,' Nabokov talks about giving his students a little quiz at the beginning of the year. 

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.

Nabokov is having good fun here, and it is telling how relevant these questions still are to us today as readers. Of course, his students leaned towards emotional identification and the social-economic angle. Nabokov was a proponent of the last four: imagination, memory, a dictionary and some artistic sense. He believed that one didn't just read a book, one re-read it numerous times. He also believed that one read with the brain, in a cool detached manner, with the possibility of emotion arriving with a tingling at the top of the spine. He wasn't prescriptive; he simply believed that impersonal imagination and artistic delight were of utmost importance when reading novels.

These days we lean towards identification with a character. If we are 'the same as,' especially if the character is a Holden Caulfield-like outsider (I'm right and everybody else is wrong), we dupe ourselves into thinking how lovely it is to be so special. Nabokov said that identifying with a character in a book is the worst thing a reader can do; the lowest form of imagination. He preferred instead a higher imagination, one that would match the prodigious imagination of the writer, and this demands a surplus of work and concentration on the reader's part."


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