The most famous banned book of all. . .
I was hesitant to write about Lolita during my Banned Book Week celebration because it certainly isn't a novel that I need to draw anyone's attention to. Nonetheless, I have chosen to reflect on this icon for two reasons. First, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication this year (click here for the history of its banning in Europe). Second, I have very fond memories of the first time that I read it.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
When I was twelve years old I fancied myself quite the sophisticate and would often seek out books that I had heard were scandalous on my frequent trips to the public library. Certain ones, like Lady Chatterly's Lover, failed to make an impression on me at such a young age. I was too young and not a skilled enough reader to appreciate many of them. But one book stands out in my mind from this era because I did read it all the way through and felt very naughty for doing it.
I recall the day that I found Lolita on the shelves and surreptitiously took it to a remote corner in the back of the stacks. I began to peruse it, the whole time terrified that I would be caught. I'm not sure what I thought would happen to me if I read this book but I remember feeling like I was doing something very dangerous, liberated, and sexy. It is a rare novel that can carry a similar weight for me these days but I still seek out that exhilaration.
Somehow I summoned up the courage to sandwich Lolita amongst a stack of other books and check it out. My heart was racing as the circulation clerk fumbled with each volume. But, shockingly, I wasn't chastised or turned in - just sent off with the reminder that they were all due in three weeks.
I read Lolita in a few evenings, I couldn't put it down. She was just like me and the stuff of my deepest fantasy and adoration. I would argue now that there is no purer or more perfect time to read Lolita than when you are a twelve-year-old girl. To read it at this age is to miss out on the prurient voyeurism that Nabokov projects on his reader. A girl reads Lolita through Lo's eyes, not Humbert's. From this perspective, Humbert is dreadfully sexy and intriguing.
While I'm sure that most of you have read Lolita, I wonder how many have Nabokov's other works. It is often erroneously stated in literary circles that Lolita is his only work worth reading. If someone has told you this I suggest you stop being friends with them immediately and spend any time you might have spent listening to them blather about literature on the reading of Pnin. Is it as sexy as Lolita? No. But it is heart-breaking and funny and remarkable.