I met Humbert Humbert this week.
Those of you who know I have an Ivy league master’s in literature might be pardoned for wondering why I’d never met him before. Who knows? I’m sure it was my fault; I can’t blame the institutions of higher learning that awarded me degrees. (I never said Lolita wasn’t assigned, just that I didn’t read it.) Probably too busy getting margarita stains off my toga.
But I digress . . .
Humbert Humbert is the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece, Lolita. In brief, he’s a fortyish pedophile who makes a twelve-year-old girl the object of his obsession. He marries her mother, yearning for greater proximity to his “nymphet,” whom he calls Lolita. The mother dies (a tad conveniently for my writerly taste, but that’s a small point), he gains control of Lolita, and travels the country with her, staying in 1950s motor courts and motels, visiting such tourist sites as might appeal to a tween, and raping her repeatedly. (HH, of course, does not call it rape, but I’m not in the mood to let him get by with euphemisms.) He ends up on trial for murder, which the reader knows from the beginning of the book, so I’m not spoiling it for anyone. I won’t tell you who he kills. (Another writerly note: I admired the device of letting the reader know that HH was on trial for murder, but not revealing who he’d killed until near the end of the book, neatly subverting the usual whodunit structure.)
What struck me about this book, and prompted me to connect reading with courage, is the empathy I felt for Humbert Humbert. I didn’t for one second condone anything he did, or believe ninety percent of his self-justifying passages, or like him, but Nabokov’s brilliance forced me to see him and, in part, understand him. I didn’t particularly want to understand a pedophile, but I did. I happen to have a twelve-year-old daughter, the exact age of HH’s Lolita, and, reading this book, I saw her through HH’s eyes. Talk about uncomfortable! Beyond uncomfortable—scary and repulsive. But also illuminating.
This is where courage and reading coincide. When you read, especially if you’re reading a work that has stood the test of time, or some of the modern masters—Roth, Updike, Atwood, Franzen, Gordimer, Oliver, to name but a handful—you run the risk of having your worldview altered. Not destroyed or undermined, but shifted a bare half inch. Is there anything scarier than coming to understand obsession and revenge through a Humbert Humbert or Captain Ahab? Prejudice via Shylock? Class consciousness and hopelessness with Lily Bart? The brutalities and losses of war through Tim O’Brien’s narrators?
We cling to our worldviews with the power of a neodymium super magnet to iron. We defend them in the face of political arguments, scientific advances, friends’ experiences (and sometimes even our own). When we read, though, something insidious happens. A character with a worldview different from ours wiggles into our heads and leaves traces of his perspective. I imagine little bits of his DNA adhering to my cerebral cortex or penetrating my amygdala, a chemical reaction of sorts taking place that fuses his viewpoint with mine. The change is usually tiny—microscopic—but it’s real. Very rarely, it’s momentous. When we talk about books as “life changing,” or find ourselves thinking about Maggie Tullivers, Holly Golightlys, or Lennies weeks after we’ve finished the last page of the books they inhabit, a more profound change may have overtaken us.
We have the power to avoid this, of course. We can refuse to read at all, or limit ourselves to news stories on the web or the kind of light, escapist reading that allows us to forget characters, plot and author’s name moments after closing the book. Heaven knows, sometimes we need an escape; our minds occasionally crave nutrition-less, easily digestible Frosted Flakes novels. What our souls need, though, is the iron and protein of Shakespeare, Didion, and Huxley, of writers who make us question, ponder, and yes, who make us uncomfortable, maybe confuse, disgust or anger us.
I’ve been deliberately expanding my reading horizons this year (beyond my usual diet of mysteries, suspense novels, and women’s fiction). Within the last month or six weeks I’ve read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Dickens’ Great Expectations, and, of course, Lolita. (I sheepishly admit I never read any of them during my academic career.) Not until my encounter with Humbert Humbert did I recognize that my worldview was shifting, but who knows what mayhem Pip or Lady Brett are wreaking on my subconscious. I say, have at it. Maybe soon they’ll get some help from Ishmael or David Copperfield or Janie Crawford. Wreak away, all of you. I’m not backing down. I plan to continue practicing random acts of courage with my reading choices.
What books, if any, have been worldview changing for you? Why? Have you ever set aside a book because it was challenging your worldview too directly?