A good idea from ... Nabokov

  • @alaindebotton
EVER SINCE the invention of the printing press, those who most love books have been prey to an awkward, paradoxical thought; that there are too many books in the world. These book lovers may even look back with nostalgia to that fortunate scroll-and-scribe era when, a little after middle age, educated people with good libraries and not too many pressing engagements could conceivably reach a point when they had read everything.

If we lament our book-swamped age, it may be out of an awareness that it is not by reading more books, but by deepening our understanding of a few well-chosen ones that we develop our intelligence and our sensitivity. How clever we would be if we only knew three or four books well, Flaubert once wrote to Louise Colet (who was reading too much). And yet this patient focus on a few titles is made harder by the abundance of new books, and by the attempts of publishers to make us feel badly read. A visit to a library or large bookstore may provoke as much despair as exhilaration.

Hence the relief of coming upon Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, a transcription of classes he gave in America in the Forties and Fifties on seven of his favourite authors. Nabokov told his students that if they studied these authors closely - Austen, Dickens, Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Stevenson, Flaubert - they'd be better read than people who had spent their lives ploughing through libraries. He was also refreshingly rude about lots of supposedly great authors: Balzac, Gorky, Zola, Orwell. Obvious as it might seem, it shows that it's possible to be intelligent and still walk blithely past some of the "greats". One might not agree with Nabokov's taste (I don't), but, far more importantly, one can trust him as a man who had his own taste.

In order to be able to feel for ourselves the greatness of a book, perhaps we have to risk that we might not like it, be it Old Goriot or Herodotus. We have to make our own minds up, which requires us to be somewhat irreverent, and dare to think that perhaps Balzac is a drag, or Charles Dickens absurdly melodramatic, or Virginia Woolf prissy. After all, books rarely seem more boring than when they've been effusively recommended to us as "masterpieces" - as works of genius. This is perhaps because greatness in literature seems synonymous with schoolroom tedium and the need to pass exams. There's something terrifying about a book whose greatness we have no choice but to accept, because critics and back-covers have gushed with all the authority at their disposal.

How difficult to be spontaneous when we feel forced to read books we know we'll simply have to end up loving, for if we don't we'll be outcast from civilised society: the only person in the world (or so it seems) to think it's a bore. Perhaps it's not, but we'll never know until we develop the inner security to judge for ourselves.