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Thoughts On "Good Readers and Good Writers" by Vladimir Nabokov

Updated on March 14, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov wrote the essay "Good Readers and Good Writers" with the purpose of developing certain qualities in readers and writers. He wants a reader to read "not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine", and he wants a writer to write with "magic", "story", and a "lesson".

In order to get us to come to same conclusion as him, he makes us ponder the following written questions: "Can we expect to glean information about places and times from a novel?" "Can anybody be so naïve as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels?" "How does the mind work when the sullen reader is confronted by the sunny book?" "What is the authentic instrument to be used by the reader?" "What should a reader be to be a good reader?"

Without being as direct as writing a question, Nabokov also causes us to ask ourselves the following questions: Can we be a good reader if we have not "reread" what we are reading? What makes a good writer? How should a reader relate to a story? Should a book be read emotionally, scientifically, or in some other manner?

The thesis appears to be that the completion of the whole writing/reading process does not come about until great writer and good reader meet through the written word. A good reader needs a great writer and a great writer needs a good reader. Nabokov did not come out and explicitly state this. The closest he came to clarifying this thesis was when he wrote, "Up a trackless slope climbs the master artist, and at the top, on a windy ridge, whom do you think he meets? The panting and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the book lasts forever." It is this beautiful union that is culmination of great writers meeting good readers. A good reader reads to experience this moment; a good writer writes to produce this moment.

If reading is to be fruitful, there must be this gathering between a good reader and a great writer. This happens when the writer has been faithful in his role to be a "storyteller, teacher, and enchanter" and the reader approaches the writing with a developed "imagination", a "memory" that can grasp the flow of the story, an understanding of the language used by the author, and an "artistic sense". It is like a mother and father coming together to conceive a child. A healthy father is like the author; the father plants the seed like the author plants the magical, teaching story. While the mother is like the reader; she must nourish and protect the baby until it is born. In the same way, the reader must comprehend the story through the proper use of her imagination, memory, and artistic sense. Only after a period of time is the baby delivered and brought into the world. The same is true with a story; only after a period of time does the story manifest the thoughts and behaviors in the reader which the author desired.

The attributes of a great writer and a good reader might not directly correspond to each other, but they do feed off of one another. A properly developed imagination is necessary to immerse one's self into the story and be enchanted by the magic of the author; a capable memory is necessary to tie all of the storytelling, teaching, and magic together; and an artistic sense is necessary to grasp the beauty of it all coming together. They are inter-connected more than they are corresponding. By being inter-connected, one element of being a great writer connects to each element of being a good reader and vice versa. One aspect of being a good reader is necessary to grasp all of the elements that a great writer exhibits in their writing. The same is true with one aspect of being a great writer will tap into all of the proficiencies of a good reader.

When we write, let us strive to be great writers. When we read, let us strive to be good readers.


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