Reading with one’s spine

I posted my thoughts on Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature the other day, and now I thought would share some interesting bits from the book. It begins with an introductory lecture called “Good Readers and Good Writers” in which he lays out his argument that “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” This quotation is the simplest way to describe Nabokov’s method, really, as it sums up what he does in each of the main lectures — he looks closely at the details in order to examine the novel’s structure. Isn’t the word “fondle” an interesting one to use here? It captures his very involved, careful, intimate, and emotional style of reading:

So what is the authentic instrument to be used by the reader? It is impersonal imagination and artistic delight. What should be established, I think, is an artistic harmonious balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind. We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy — passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers — the inner weave of a given masterpiece.

There is a lot to like here, especially the mix of the personal and the impersonal in reading: he calls for an attempt to enjoy passionately while at the same time keeping enough distance to notice what’s going on. I’m not entirely sure how that works, exactly, as passion seems to imply the loss of critical distance, but I know subjectively what he means, or at least I think I do. I also like the idea that there should be a balance between the author’s mind and the reader’s mind — that the reader and author are working together in good faith and with good will to try to create something meaningful.

I’m also amused at the way Nabokov sounds a little like an eighteenth-century woman of sensibility, one who prides herself on her exquisite emotional sensitivity and her ability to cry at affecting scenes in novels, when he talks about “tears and shivers.” But he only sounds like that for a moment, before he moves on to discuss what else besides emotion and imagination are required. Here’s how strong emotion connects to a novel’s detail:

What I mean is that the reader must know when and where to curb his imagination and this he does by trying to get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal. We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people. The color of Fanny Price’s eyes in Mansfield Park and the furnishing of her cold little room are important.

So detail is a check on emotion, as it keeps us grounded in the specifics of the world the author creates. In fact, Nabokov has already outlined several wrong kinds of imagination and emotion to be found in readers — including the kind that is solely personal because we relate the book only to our own experiences, and the kind that leads us to identify with a character. In an odd kind of way, our imagination and emotions are supposed to lead us beyond ourselves:

We all have different temperaments, and I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgment will temper the intuitive heat. If, however, a would-be reader is utterly devoid of passion and patience — of an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience — he will hardly enjoy great literature.

I like all these ideas a lot, even if they are abstract. Nabokov ends this chapter with a metaphor, which I also like, although it doesn’t clear up the abstractness:

In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

I like very much the idea of reading with one’s spine, even if I’m not entirely sure I know what it means. I also like the way a castle of cards can turn into a castle of steel and glass. We know the entire time we are reading that it’s a castle of cards — we know the work is a fiction — but through the magic of a writer and a reader working together that fiction somehow becomes real.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

12 responses to “Reading with one’s spine

  1. Oh, I love that, reading with the spine. That is a brilliant description.


  2. I’m really enjoying your reading of Nabokov, Dorothy. Thanks a lot.


  3. I’m not entirely sure what that means either–I think I read too much with the heart–the spine must be a balance between the head and the heart. He deals in the abstract well! I do very much like the castle of cards metaphor, though!


  4. Kimberly

    What an interesting and thoughtful site you’ve created, Dorothy. I plan on reading as much as I can (as I read Infinite Jest again – I found your commentary on the IJ site).

    I think I fall into the overly passionate reader mode. For example, when I discover an author I like, I have to read everything by that author, and sometimes cannot sleep for needing to read on, which was definitely the case when I discovered DFW’s works this year. However, when I read the works a second and third time, especially anything by my favorite author, Marguerite Yourcenar, I read with the spine described so elegantly in Nabakov’s essay.


  5. Just stop by to wish you a Happy July 4th from your Canadian neighbor blogger!


  6. I like the idea of combining the artistic and scientific temperaments. Some books do require more of one than the other — but when both are there, a nice balance in the reading experience results.


  7. Charlotte — I agree! I’ll have to mind this book for more great quotations, because there are lots of them there.

    Joseph — well, thank you!

    Danielle — yes, they are both fascinating metaphors, and they inspire some serious thought! Yeah, I’d see the spine as a balance of heart and brain — maybe it’s the idea of reading with one’s whole body and mind combined. Perhaps the spine seems really elemental in that way.

    Kimberly — well, thank you very much for stopping by, and I’m glad you clicked over! When I fall in love with an author, I don’t tend to read everything all at once, but I do make plans to get there eventually. I’m collecting DFW’s books slowly and will read them all eventually. I’m impressed with your Yourcenar interesting — I read Memoirs of Hadrian and was intrigued by it, but perhaps I need to try her again. I was challenged by that book.

    Arti — thank you for stopping by! As always!!

    Debby — yes, I like that idea too; it’s most satisfying, I think, when a book makes you think and feel both. The experience of reading it is that much more meaningful.


  8. I really related to what Nabokov is saying here. He wants passion in the reader, because only a reader who feels this book really, really, matters will pay the right kind of attention to it. I think you have to be passionate to make that effort, to get deep into the text, to be prepared to listen to it without prejudice. And he’s right that some scientific drive to balance that passion is necessary. But books aren’t scientific. They work by moving us, and that’s something you feel deep in your entrails, or maybe in your spine. I’ve read a lot of bloggers on these lectures and never really wanted to read them for myself, but you’ve made me curious.

    I don’t know how I missed this post the first time around – sorry to be late to the discussion!


  9. Jenny

    I love this description. I’ve never read anything by Nabokov except Lolita, and this is making me want to run right out to get these lectures. (I adore reading about reading.)


  10. Fondling details and reading with the spine, I love it! How interesting it must have been to sit in Nabokov’s lectures. While it seems I agree with much of what he says I might want to quibble from time to time and I wonder if I were in his lecture if I’d have the nerve to raise my hand and disagree?


  11. Litlove — I think you capture Nabokov’s point very well, and I think he would approve! I definitely like the idea of strong emotion combined with reasoning power as a way to really appreciate books. I’ve seen responses that err too much on one side or the other, and they make it clear that finding the right balance is crucial if you want to read and write about books well.

    Jenny — I love books about reading as well, and this is a good example, although you do have to be prepared for long sections discussing details of various plots. It’s not all about reading. But it’s still quite good.

    Stefanie — I think it would have been interesting to hear Nabokov lecture, and I wonder what his delivery was like. I suspect I would NOT have the nerve to raise my hand and disagree! I would be too overawed, I’m sure.


  12. Rochelle Adams

    I loved your analysis! This is truly a great dissection of the quotes from the passage; you helped me understand everything a lot better as well as form my own opinion on some of the deeper meanings. Thanks a ton!


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