Becoming a better reader

When I was about 18 years old I read the following in Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lectures on Literature

In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins wih a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it.”

Years later, I am now thinking about whether or not I have grown as a reader. Am I able to read outside my comfort zone? Do I carry on with a novel even if I don’t like or sympathize with the main characters? Can I pay attention to the details and descriptions if I am unfamiliar with a plot? I would like answer with a resounding  ‘yes’ to these questions, but I am not so sure.

My comfort zone in reading is definitely the ‘Classics’. I absolutely adore novels published before the 1920s and if they are thick, I often like them even better. I loved ‘War and Peace‘, ‘Moby Dick‘ and ‘Bleak House‘, to name some of the fatter ones.  Lately, I am trying to read more contemporary fiction. Last year I read Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration trilogy‘, which impressed me a lot and I look forward to a re-read at some point. Somehow I struggle a bit with contemporary novels, but there are quite a few that I look forward to trying.

I often have difficulties continuing a novel if the main character ‘does something stupid’ that may potentially have severe consequences. I find it especially unnerving if it is made clear to the reader that this will be so, for example via foreshadowing. I wonder if that is because I am myself also continuously worried that I am not doing things as they should be done, or even worse, doing them wrong. I also sometimes struggle if I am not able to identify with the main character(s), but this is easier to overcome than the ‘doing-things-wrong’ issue.

The third point, that of details vs plot is a tough one for me. I read quite fast and really have to force myself to absorb the details and make sure I am not skimming the book and just taking in the plot. Sometimes I read ahead or read the final pages (shocking right?) so I have a clue what will happen. This makes it easier to pay attention to the details. Still, there is nothing like being surprised by the plot of a novel you’ve never read before. I hope at some time in the future to be able to slowly take in both the plot and the writing, without being too eager to find out what happens.

The issue of how much your own background, character and views on life influence the enjoyment of or opinion on a novel is probably something that is talked about quite a bit within literature studies. I have had no formal training in this respect, but I do find it  a fascinating topic. CrazyAuntPurl touches on this in her wrap-up post for the group-read of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ she organized. Her question is whether she would have enjoyed P&P more if she had read it at an earlier age, since her personal views on marriage have changed quite a bit since then. I find that a very interesting and valid question. And something I would like to ponder on a bit further with regard to my own views and reading experiences.

In short, I feel I have quite some things to learn as a reader. Thankfully, there are still a lot of novels out there that I want to read and polish my skills on. My original list of 88 novels as it can be found on this blog is being added to almost daily. And I seem to have about 40 books on my TBR shelf. Both of these facts make me very happy indeed.

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