Personal Best: Lolita

"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov

Topics: Jane Eyre, Books,

after years of my being asked in public, “What’s your all-time favorite book?” I should have a definitive sound bite by now. You’d think. But for this writer, having to choose a best book conjures up terrible visions of schoolyard days when I waited to be chosen as someone’s friend. Because my family moved almost yearly, books became my comfort, and I want to embrace them all.

Certainly “Jane Eyre” fits in there with bests. Its setting of gloom and chill matched my emotional interior. I identified with Jane Eyre’s alienation, her meager hopes. Moreover, I loved her spunkiness; she was confined by circumstances, yet subtly rebellious and spiritually subversive. From “Jane Eyre,” I acquired a literary preference for gothic atmosphere and dark emotional resonance.

I also want to say the dictionary is a best, any unabridged dictionary. I read lists of words as though they were stories. Within their nuances, I see possibilities. Like many writers, I am passionate about words. To this day, I love reading dictionaries, including lexicons of dead languages. I love the sounds and shapes of words, the way that certain consonant blends conjure up related images — glow, glisten, glimmer, glen versus flabby, flap, flop, flotsam, flatter, flatulence. I am fascinated with the origins of words, when they first came into being, how they were used. Within their histories are stories. The dictionary for me is my Scheherazade. Plus it can spell Scheherazade.

There’s also “Love Medicine” by Louise Erdrich and “Annie John” by Jamaica Kincaid. I have reread each of those books many times. And as with the first times, I am always inspired to think about the narrative qualities I cherish in stories. “Love Medicine” is the book that made me want to find my own voice. It inspired my early attempts at writing fiction.

Finally, we get to the compulsory litmus test of literature. If stranded on a desert island, what book, other than “How to Get Off a Desert Island,” would I read? As an endlessly entertaining literary companion I would chose the annotated edition of “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov (published by Vintage, with notes by Alfred Appel, Jr.)

I often reread passages of “Lolita” for its exquisite language. To me, “Lolita” has no message, no purpose, other than to exist as a marvel of literary creation. It has wit, intelligence and style. It pointedly makes no attempt to serve a higher moral purpose, and previous attempts by critics to find one have proven ludicrous. The annotated edition is accompanied by a brilliant afterword by Nabokov that is a lucid reminder of the pure joy of writing, its interplay with life. He also provides the truest definition of pornography I’ve ever found, likening it to mediocre literature and the “copulation of cliches.” I’ll keep this in mind if I ever get around to seeing the latest makeover of “Lolita” on film.

I’ve also read Nabokov’s lectures, interviews, essays and letters. And while I often admire his opinions as a writer, particularly his distaste for literary deconstructionism, I probably wouldn’t have liked him in person. His tone makes him come across as arrogant and mocking, an intellectual elitist. Yet his very nastiness makes me like “Lolita” all the more — or rather, I like the fact that his work overshadows his public persona. In the ideal world of literature, that is the way it should be. The work stands for itself, neither improved nor desecrated by literary analysis, film adaptations or exposes of the author.

Amy Tan is the author of "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Kitchen God's Wife." Her most recent novel is "The Hundred Secret Senses."

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