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Vladimir Nabokov on What Makes a Good Reader

“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

“All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading,” H.P. Lovecraft famously advised aspiring writers. We’ve already seen that reading is a learned skill and an optimizable technique, and that non-reading is as important an intellectual choice as reading itself, so it follows that reading, more than the mere monolithic act of ingesting text, comes with degrees of mastery. But what, exactly, does it mean to be a good reader?

Last week brought us Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderfully opinionated insights on literature and life from a rare 1969 BBC interview. The beloved author, it turns out, was equally opinionated in his criteria for what constitutes a good reader. In his collected Lectures on Literature (public library), Nabokov offers the following exercise, which he posed to students at a “remote provincial college” while on an extended lecture tour:

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.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.

He goes on to consider the element of time in reading, making a case for the value of rereading:

Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

Complement with Mark Twain’s humorous list of the fourteen types of readers and Nabokov on the three qualities a great storyteller must have.


Remembering Aaron Swartz: David Foster Wallace on the Meaning of Life

“Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

I recently attended the heartbreaking memorial for open-access activist Aaron Swartz, who for the past two years had been relentlessly and unscrupulously prosecuted for making academic journal articles freely available online and who had taken his own life a week prior. A speaker at the service read a piece by one of Aaron’s personal heroes, David Foster Wallace — an excerpt from Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address, the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life, which was eventually adapted into a slim book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (public library).

I’ve written about the speech previously, but the particular excerpt read at Aaron’s memorial resonates with chilling clarity in light of recent meditations on the meaning of life, how to find one’s purpose, morality vs. intelligence, and whether money can really buy happiness. Wallace remarks:

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Also speaking at the memorial, data visualization godfather Edward Tufte captured the essence of Aaron’s character:

Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different. There’s a scarcity of that.

Hear This Is Water in its entirety, with notable excerpts, here. Help fight the broken system that mauled Aaron here. Honor his legacy with a contribution to Creative Commons here.

Portrait: Aaron Swartz by Fred Benenson under Creative Commons


How Lantern Slides Revolutionized Education: A Protein Story

When an old entertainment technology brought the world to the lecture hall, bridging science and art.

We’ve already seen how the humble lantern slide changed photography and storytelling, but little credence is given to how profoundly it changed education and the academic world. In the altogether excellent biography I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science (UK; public library) — which tells the story of a pioneering and controversial female mathematician who helped shed light on the molecular structure of proteins, was the first woman to receive a Doctor of Science degree from Oxford University, and embodied the cross-pollination of disciplines two decades before C. P. Snow’s famous lament about the “two cultures”Marjorie Senechal writes:

Lantern slides — glass slides 3.5 x 4 inches, with photographic images transferred to them by any of several methods — were patented in 1850. The invention brought the inventors, William and Frederick Langenheim of Philadelphia, a medal at the first of the great world fairs, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. The brothers meant to entertain, nothing more. But the impact of these replicable, portable slides was far greater: the lantern slide brought the world to the lecture hall. In its century-long heyday, from the invention of photography to the Second World War, the ‘magic lantern’ transformed the transmission of art and science.

Dorothy Wrinch’s cracked lantern slide showing her protein model. The model was constructed and photographed in Niels Bohr’s laboratory in Copenhagen; the lantern slide was made for Irving Langmuir, 1940.

Senechal, who had assisted with Wrinch with a book and had spent considerable time with the scientists in her final years, recalls trying to make sense of Wrinch’s belongings after her death, including her astounding lantern slides:

As I grope my way back through the cluttered cage, I spot a cardboard box on a high shelf of metal staging. It’s very heavy; I can scarcely lift it down. It’s filled with lantern slides. These slides have no numbers, and most have no envelope. I browse through them: models, crystals, diffraction patterns. The images are elegant, concise, precise. My heart skips a beat; then tears blur my eyes: these are Dorothy’s slides. She must have stashed them here when the science center opened, to great fanfare, in 1965. Her new office was small and by then lantern slides were history, supplanted by new technology: Kodak carousels, overhead projectors. She would never use her lantern slides again.

The oldest slides in the box are hand-made: disintegrating negatives clamped between glass plates, bound with red or black tape. I hold one up to the light. The glass is cracked, the aged tape disintegrating.

Dorothy’s protein model. Simple, beautiful, elegant. The geometrical objet d’art that catalyzed research on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dorothy Wrinch’s lantern slide showing cyclol fragments as denatured proteins.

I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science is absolutely fantastic in its entirety — poignant, rigorously researched, absorbingly narrated, impossible to put down. Do pick it up.


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