Literary Lessons for a Scholarly Holiday

Well, I’m Back Home Again in Indiana for the holidays, with very little to do except read my old journals from high school, goof off with my siblings, avoid former acquaintances at the gym, and visit the la-di-da grocery store that just opened up around the corner.

Which, actually, is plenty.

Most of the Christmas gifts I received were books…


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…or other literary paraphernalia, including (but not limited to) this Anna Karenina “litograph” poster, created using text from the novel, and these hilarious Pride and Prejudice tree ornaments.

But that wasn’t the end of my readerly Yuletide.

For as long as I can remember, and probably much longer, there has been an orange and an envelope at the bottom of my Christmas stocking. The orange, of course, is just an orange. But the envelope contains a year-end bonus to supplement our usual family wages (unconditional love and the occasional home-cooked meal, that is).

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. There are strings attached to that envelope. We have to earn what’s inside it through a demonstration of knowledge—or, failing that, a brief bout of humiliation. Because on the outside of that envelope, there’s a question.

And the question is never easy.

My question, this year, was: Who were the leading members of the Inklings?

And even though the term meant nothing to me, I gathered up a quick round of clues (“Ink,” from the name itself, and then “mid-century,” “British,” and “fantasy” from my Question Master uncle) to quickly reach Tolkien as an obvious front-runner.

“Yes, Tolkien,” said my uncle. “And his friend…?”

“Oh, C. S. Lewis,” I rattled off like a professional nerd. And then I got to open up my envelope with the dignity that comes with a trivial triumph (PUN INTENDED OBVIOUSLY).

Now that I’ve done the appropriate research, I can tell you that the Inklings were an all-male literary group that met regularly at Oxford during the 1930s and ’40s. At their meetings, members would read and discuss their latest projects, drink beer, and make fun of lesser writers. One of their favorite rendezvous points was the Eagle and Child, a popular Oxford pub.

I’ve been to that pub. I’d even heard that Tolkien and Lewis visited often. But I never knew, until last week, that they called themselves the Inklings. And even for someone like me, who thinks Tolkien is over-hyped to grotesque proportions and finds Lewis just a tad boring, this new information is adorkable and charming enough to evoke fond memories of both beer and Christmas.

The trivia ransom game is far from being our weirdest holiday tradition (sneaking this traumatizing ET doll into each other’s coat pockets and suitcases is closer to the top of that list). But it remains one of our most stressful enlightening. I pass on this knowledge today in the hopes that you, too, look for literary lessons inside your local pub and at the bottom of your Christmas stocking.

Just don’t expect much out of the orange.

#3 Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov


Lolita is hard to stomach. Let me make that clear right off the bat. A pull-no-punches back cover summary would describe a middle-aged academic (Humbert Humbert) lusting after, and ultimately sleeping with, his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter (the eponymous Lolita). In other words, Lolita is the story of a pedophile and the child he rapes repeatedly over a two-year period. A spade is a spade is a spade.

But plot, as we know, is only one force at play in any story we’re destined to pick up. What makes Lolita fascinating—and it is, no doubt, fascinating—is the way the story is told. Nabokov, in this 1955 fictional memoir, toys to great effect with the idea of style vs. substance. Can the taboo turn to treasure if we polish it hard enough? Can a horrible story unfold beautifully?

The answer, it seems, is yes—and that yes is Lolita. Nabokov’s prose bounces and swings; stirs and sparks; snaps, crackles, and pops. He builds a rich literary world full of artistic allusions, foreign languages, and clever word play. As you twist and turn your way along the contours of each serpentine sentence, the intimate intensity of Humbert Humbert’s voice is so absorbing that you lose the will to resist. You nearly forget, mid-stream in his passionate plea for compassion, that this is a narrator who:

  • Coins the term “nymphet” to describe a sexually attractive girl between the ages of 9 and 14
  • Solicits adolescent prostitutes
  • Makes repeated attempts to lure twelve-year-old Lolita into his presence
  • Decides to marry Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, to remain close to Lolita
  • Plans to slip Lolita and Charlotte sleeping pills so he can fondle Lolita
  • Plots to kill Charlotte
  • Kidnaps Lolita at camp after Charlotte is hit, and killed, by a car
  • Uses historical anecdotes and magazine articles to justify having sex with Lolita
  • Persuades her to keep quiet about their relationship with reminders that if he goes to jail, she’ll end up in a juvenile detention home
  • Restricts Lolita’s social and leisure activities (especially with boys)
  • Ignores heartbreakingly obvious signs that she is loath to continue their affair
  • Pays Lolita for sexual favors and then steals back the money so she can’t run away
  • Imagines impregnating Lolita (and, ten years later, having sex with the ensuing daughter) as Lolita’s nymphet qualities begin to waste away

Suffice it to say that the writing is exceptional, to make any of the above fit for literary consumption—much less praise. Nabokov himself puts it best in the book’s foreword, written by a fictional academic editor upon publishing Humbert’s manuscript:

I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

All of this, though, makes our modern pop culture references to “Lolitas” not only inaccurate, but disturbing in the extreme. “Lolita” as an archetype should, by rights, have nothing to do with a sexually precocious schoolgirl, and everything to do with a victim of rape and other forms of abuse.

Equally sickening are the methods used to market Lolita, conflating Humbert Humbert’s hysteria of lust with an epic and enduring love. Whether he loves Lolita or not is arguable. But Vanity Fair‘s baffling interpretation of Lolita as “the only convincing love story of our century,” quoted on the back cover of my Vintage International paperback, is inarguably grotesque.


Threats to Lolita‘s existence were, of course, numerous and adamant. Four American publishers refused the manuscript. It was accused, following its publication by the Parisian Olympia Press in 1955, of being “pornographic,” “obscene,” and “anti-American.” It regularly appears on “Banned Books” lists. In spite of this (or because of it), Lolita has remained, for over 50 years, a beast of a bestseller, alternately captivating and horrifying its readers.

In the book’s afterword, written in 1956, Nabokov asserts that his now-classic tragicomedy has no moral. His goal, he insists, in answering the “initial shiver of inspiration” to write Lolita differed considerably:

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

To that I say, with no misgivings, to Nabokov beyond the grave: Mission accomplished.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Read as a study in insanity, or a tale told from the villain’s point of view, Lolita is worthy of admiration (be it reluctant or enthusiastic). Read as a lesson in literary technique, Lolita is a masterpiece.

Favorite Quotes:

I have still other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain.

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

It occurred to me that if I were really losing my mind, I might end by murdering somebody. In fact—said high-and-dry Humbert to floundering Humbert—it might be quite clever to prepare things—to transfer the weapon from box to pocket—so as to be ready to take advantage of the spell of insanity when it does come.

I am sufficiently proud of my knowing something to be modest about my not knowing all. 

Read: 2015

Medieval Spam: The Oldest Advertisements for Books


Advertisements are all around us. As I am writing this post, waiting in an airport lobby, I can only escape them if I close my eyes and cover my ears. Marketing and advertising are practices dating back to medieval times and we encounter them even in the world of books. While rare, surviving book advertisements are fascinating because they highlight what salesmen thought potential buyers deemed important about their products. Advertisements form, in an unusual way, a unique keyhole view into the hearts and minds of readers that lived a thousand years ago. Fascinatingly, surviving book advertisements come in very recognisable – modern – formats: some are window displays, others are spam in books, and yet others are flyers posted in public places.

Window displays

The Hague, Royal Library, 76 D 45 (advertisement sheet, c. 1450) Fig. 1 – The Hague, Royal Library, 76 D 45 (advertisement sheet, c. 1450) – Source

While still rare, the most common surviving book advertisement from medieval times is the so-called…

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A Bookshelf Survey (That Could Probably Double as My Autobiography)


There’s nothing like a bookshelf survey for those of us who enjoy talking about ourselves (and books). I was lucky enough to be tagged by the venerable Shannon Noel Brady and then stole her idea of pillaging other book surveys for even more hard-hitting questions.

I post this now in the hopes of persuading you that my reading habits are interesting, even though I know otherwise.

Here we go:

Find a book on your shelves for each of your initials.

J is for Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. (For the record, I preferred This Lullaby.) L is for Les Liaisons Dangereuses (which is lewd and awesome).

I don’t have a middle name. It’s kind of a long story that has nothing to do with books.

Count your age along your bookshelf. What book did you land on?

The 26th book on my largest bookshelf (one of three, not including my nightstand and the largely unused “cookbook area”) is Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I haven’t officially reviewed it yet, but when I do I will have only good things to say.

Find a book that takes place in your city or state.

On the Road is set in New York (at least, in part) and renders it beautifully on the page:

Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City.

Find a book set somewhere you would love to travel to.

India is on my to-do list, as is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Find a book cover in your favorite color.

I make a point of not having a favorite anything. But green is pretty. And One Hundred Years of Solitude is green.


Which book do you have the fondest memories of?

The Princess Diaries. I’ve read it every year since I was twelve and will continue to do so until the pages start falling off between my fingers.

Which book did you have the most difficulty reading?

I felt like I was recovering from surgery after I read The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner takes a toll, and that toll is an arm and a leg.

Which book in your TBR pile will give you the biggest sense of accomplishment?

When I turn the last page of In Search of Lost Time, I will probably throw myself a hula parade. Also Ulysses. And War and Peace. Honestly, my entire TBR pile is intimidating, which is why I spend so much time between novels devouring celebrity gossip.

Do you have a special place at home for reading?

I’ve read pretty much everywhere in my house—in bed, on the couch, at the table, in the bath, on the windowsill. None of these places are especially comfortable. Eventually I’ll just build one of these—or move. Or both.

When do you usually read?

I read for at least half an hour every morning, and another hour in the evening. Audiobooks sneak their way in most anytime, though. I just bought earmuff headphones to support my addiction in the height of winter (and style!).

Can you read while listening to music/watching TV?

Not even a little—I’ve always needed absolute silence to concentrate. When that’s not an option, I listen to my white noise app, or YouTube videos of rain, with noise-canceling headphones.

What do you use for bookmarks?

My husband, known ’round these parts as Spiderman, is among the seeming minority of people who collect and use bookmarks. So if there’s one around (and there usually is), I indulge in this minor luxury. Otherwise it’s scrap paper, receipts, stray cash, or candy wrappers to the rescue.

Are your book spines creased or unbroken?

I go out of my way to break my books in. They need to feel loved, because they are.

What is the last book you bought?

That honor goes to the tiny, hand-crafted OK Cupid Messages I Have Not Responded To by Delphine Bedient. I bought it in a book spree at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

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What are some books that won’t be joining your bookshelf?

East of Eden (I’ve heard just about enough out of you, Steinbeck) and Game of Thrones (I don’t think I’ll like it, and it’s too long to try out “just in case”).

I hereby tag Cátia at The Girl Who Read Too Much, Self at Kanlaon, and brand new blogger Marie at MarieLikesBigBooks, to enlighten us all on their own reading habits.

Until next time! Here’s hoping my TBR pile shrinks magically while I watch Community.