Incidentally, both the best and the worst books I’ve read were courtesy of the same professor. One was an unassigned, personal recommendation, and the other required for class. One of these books I’ve read so many times in the intervening three years that I’ve inadvertently memorized the first chapter. The other I will never, ever forgive my dear professor for implanting in my memory.
Best: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Once again, I return to my original Lolita, with its ailing spine, peeling cover, and well-thumbed through pages. It’s the 50th Anniversary Vintage Edition, with fleshy pink lips gracing a cover that I know Nabokov would abhor. The précis, which I am fairly sure Nabokov would decry as a clumsy, cliché, and cursory sketch of his most complex novel, reads:
Awe and exhilaration – along with heartbreak and mordant wit – abound in Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Most of all, it is a meditation on love – love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.
When I learned that half my task was to write about my best read, it took less than a millisecond for Lolita to burst to the forefront of my prefrontal cortex. It was instantaneous, reflexive. I’m not even sure it came from my memory, but rather my spine. However, it took only another half a second for me to say to myself, “No, Whitney, you cannot write about Lolita. I forbid it.”
I have this belief that Lolita is a flawless work of art, so perfect in its execution that one must not write about it. To do so can only make one sound incompetent, unjust, and vulgar by comparison. This I know from personal experience. Pulled relentlessly by Lolita’s gravity, my last two years of college yielded four papers, each one longer and more finely focused than the last. What I learned from all those papers is that there is nothing I can say about Lolita that it can’t say for itself, and much more eloquently, to boot.
The quoted description takes a wide view, concentrating on the story of Lolita, but Lolita’s not about the story at all. Far more important to Nabokov’s novel is the narration. As Humbert, the narrator and protagonist of Lolita, says, “I am not concerned with the so-called ‘sex’ at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on: to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets.” It’s this fixated view one must take while reading to appreciate Lolita as Nabokov did. The seeming minutiae – the puns and the inverted letters, the spoonerisms and the slippery sounds, the innards of the parentheses – are what propel Lolita forward.
Worst: Blu’s Hanging by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Some books take longer than others, but it has little to do with length. Blu’s Hanging felt like it took several lifetimes to read, with each page being like one miserable, interminable year after another. I buried Blu’s Hanging deep in a collection of miscellaneous junk, hoping never to unearth it again. While I have a strict prohibition against discarding books, I wavered with this one, and my compromise with myself was to keep it, but segregate it from the rest of my library.
Blu’s Hanging picks up in the aftermath of a mother’s death. Three young children are left to fend for themselves as their father attempts to assuage his guilt and grief with drugs and alcohol. Ivah, the 13-year-old protagonist, takes up the responsibility of raising her younger siblings, Blu and Maisie, who are vulnerable to the child molester next door.
I’ve read many books of lesser literary quality than Blu, and my contention with it is not that it is of inherently poor literary worth. It has its merits, and I’m sure for some people it can be an engaging read. But I am not one of those people, and if you like cats, you probably aren’t one of those people, either. I literally choked back both tears and vomit as I read through scenes of egregiously gratuitous violence against animals. If cats weren’t being fed ground up glass, they were enduring firecrackers in their rectums, and that wasn’t even the worst of it. An entire litter of newborn kittens met their demise at the end of a noose, which is where I lost all patience for the author. I went to school the next day so angry at my professor for assigning this book that I didn’t even want to look at him.
Literature doesn’t usually evoke a physiological response from me, and I don’t withdraw from violent literature. I fully appreciate books such as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, where the violence is an imperative and productive part of the novel. However, the animal cruelty in Blu’s Hanging was nothing more than attention-seeking sensationalism. It ruined the novel.
Somewhat bizarrely, both Lolita and Blu’s Hanging treat explicitly the same provocative theme: child sexual abuse. Yet while Nabokov deftly uses language to pull forth the horror of such a crime, Yamanaka completely overshadows it with the horror of mutilated animals.