The making of a good reader

Christopher Farai Charamba The Reader
What makes a good reader? Is it the ability to consume hundreds of books in a year? Or perhaps a good reader is the one who can retell the story with precision soon after completing a piece of work. One is of the opinion that as numerous as there are people, there are likely different types of readers. Reading also tends to be a personal activity, and so perhaps there isn’t a single definition of a good reader.

In an essay titled “Good Readers and Good Writers” found in “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov he shares his thoughts on what makes a good reader and how people should consume literature. Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist famous for penning “Lolita” in 1955. He was also a synesthete who saw numbers and letters as colours.

“The good reader,” Nabokov writes, “is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.” According to him: “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” He argues against generalising work and approaching a piece of literature with preconceived notions of what it is about but should rather the reader should always be critical of the work while situating it only in the world that the writer has chosen to create. Nabokov warns against seeing literature, particularly fiction, as anthropological and depicting accurately the time or space within which it was written.

“We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know,” he writes.

This is one of the plights that African authors find themselves in. Their work is often seen as a representation of a real African existence even if this space exists only in the mind of the author. Imagination and a critical awareness are thus essential if the reader is to not make connections with the worlds they already know. Of course, this is not a steadfast rule and many authors draw inspiration from real life events. However, a novel, particularly a fictional one, while it can offer apt social commentary, should not be taken as a historical account.

As Nabokov put it: “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.” One intriguing idea that Nabokov shares is “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re- reader”.He makes the argument that when one reads a book for the first time they do not have a full picture of what the story is about and therefore are unable to interrogate it and appreciate it artistically as a whole. A case can be made that the second time one reads a piece of work they can examine it more and perhaps pick up details that they might have missed the first time round. However, this certainly depends on the indiv- idual.

Some people tend to read with clinical precision the first time and do not need to re-read work while others are more passive and could benefit from a re- read. Nabokov’s essay ends with his thoughts on what makes a good writer. “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered,” he writes. “He may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.” A storyteller provides entertainment, a teacher some form of education, moral or factual, and an enchanter the magic and genius of the work through how it is written and how it makes one feel. The best writers, one believes, are those who leave the reader interrogating the work and their feelings long after they have closed the last page.

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