On Quizzes, Movies, and Vladimir Nabokov

Edward Jay Epstein, in a piece for The New York Review of Books titled “An A from Nabokov,” recollects the fall of 1954 when he took a course at Cornell with Vladimir Nabokov as the instructor:

He [Nabokov] then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

It’s a great story of how a pop quiz led Epstein to a side job watching movies and conversing with the great author.


One of my all-time favorite books, listed in the Classics page on this site, is Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

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