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Banned Books Week: Lolita


September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.

If you’ve been living under a rock: Unless you got an English Lit degree in college, chances are Lolita is the only Vladimir Nabokov novel you can name without looking anything up. It is the story of one Humbert Humbert, an emotionally stunted man in his 40s who falls in love with his landlady’s young daughter. The daughter, Lolita, bears an uncanny resemblance to the one great love of Humbert’s life, the girl he was in love with when he was himself twelve years old but who died. The book is written from Humbert’s unflinchingly honest and self-appraising first person point of view.

Why it has been banned: Come on. The protagonist wants nothing more than to get freaky with a 12 year old girl. In one of the least surprising reactions to a literary work ever, the book was assailed right out of the gate as being lewd, indecent, immoral, and obscene, downright pornographic. It has been challenged ever since. France banned it in 1956, and the commissioners of Marion County, Florida, challenged the book in the county’s public libraries in 2006. How many books can boast a half-century of challenge?

Why that’s dumb: Suggesting that Lolita somehow condones pedophilia is entirely foolish, and anybody who says this to you is basically admitting that they either haven’t read the book, or else is willfully misunderstanding it. The book leaves no ambiguity that Humbert Humbert knows his proclivities are immoral, and he loathes himself for it.

A book whose protagonist is a pedophile is not going to somehow turn readers into pedophiles, any more than a movie like The Blind Side is going to turn me into a football player. Banning the book will do nothing to stop the horrible problem of child sexual abuse. It is worse than a laughable motivation. In thinking that banning a book is going to do any good, society gets to point to such efforts as examples of action being taken while the real problem goes unaddressed. And while it does, real children get hurt.

Neither will banning the book shield children from unpleasant truths: The book’s intentionally uber-literary style likely renders it all but incomprehensible to kids anyway. Unless you’re helping your sheltered child read and understand the almost paranoid level of metaphor used to convey the story, they’re not going to have any idea what it’s really about.

Why this book is awesome: I won’t say this isn’t a difficult book to read. It is, and indeed, parts of it I found difficult and distasteful to read. Which I’m sure was Nabokov’s intention. It isn’t a light and airy place, stepping however fictionally into the mentality of a child abuser. Recently, I saw this quote about the book (source):

Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a pedophile, a monster as vile as could possibly be imagined. Yet he still has agency, and his choices—reprehensible as they may be—never fail to provoke a reaction on our parts.

Which, I think, is exactly the point. Nabokov challenges his readers to look at Humbert’s actions, at Humbert’s motivations and the justifications for them, and make a choice. He demands we make a moral judgment. Is this right or wrong? At least for me, answering that question was not difficult. Considerably easier than reading the book itself, anyway.

The book is also awesome simply for its writing. Lolita is a great example of high literary style. I don’t honestly think this sort of writing flies in the modern marketplace (outside of rare counterexamples such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union). The writing is dense and difficult—a fact enhanced by Nabokov’s presumption that readers are fluent in English, French, and Latin—and I think few would argue that modern readers are looking for something a little faster to get through. Still, if you’re looking for a book to study for examples of vivid descriptions, spot-on turns of phrase, colorful and evocative metaphors, and other such devices, look no further.

In terms of story structure, it is also a good example of the extended flashback structure, in which the book starts at the story’s chronological end, then jumps back to the beginning, and we catch up from there. It is notoriously difficult to use this structure in conjunction with mysteries, because it’s hard for that opening not to give away too much. Yet, Nabokov does exactly that. Humbert labels himself a murderer in the book’s opening paragraphs, yet the story retains all the mystery it needs to keep us wondering about the murder.

Look. I know I’ll probably catch some heat for putting this book on my list. So be it. One of the jobs of literature is to confront us, both individually and collectively, with the best and worst in ourselves. Only by taking an honest, if difficult, look at ourselves can we move forward. In that light, Lolita is also awesome for having done its part to bring a traditionally hidden, taboo crime out into the light. Pedophilia is still pretty much a taboo subject, but Nabokov is to be praised for having taken a significant and early step to breach that taboo. To the extent that Lolita has done much to bring awareness, discussion, and advocacy about child sexual abuse issues into the public spotlight, the book has left the world a better place. As far as I’m concerned, that counts as awesome.

Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the rest of the posts:

September 27, 2011 15:37 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, Vladimir Nabokov, censorship

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