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Confessions of A Former Illiterate

BY the age of 14 or 15, Nabokov writes, he had "read or reread all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English, all Flaubert in French." He continues: "Between the ages of 10 and 15 in St. Petersburg, I must have read more fiction and poetry - English, Russian, and French - than in any other five-year period of my life."My Russian-born mother also read voraciously in her youth. Coming from a family with a gift for languages - her father represented British and American companies in Russia and her mother translated English literary works, like Barrie's "Peter Pan," into Russian - Mother became trilingual at an early age. She spoke Russian, English, and French, and was well-read in all three languages. At the time of the Russian Revolution, when her family fled from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to their summer house in Finland, then a duchy of the Russian Empire, Mother spent her winter days and nights reading Scott, Dickens, and Trollope. By age 16, when she arrived in Boston by ship from Copenhagen, she was an extraordinarily literate person. Alas, my early experiences with reading were dismal. Even learning to read proved difficult. For years I attended remedial reading classes and was excused from French because I confused the sounds of English and French words. Added to these woes, I was a slow reader, lazy, and thought only of sports. During my pre-college years I read what was required at school and little else. I was admitted to Harvard College in the category of "late bloomer." In my freshman year I failed to bloom; in fact, I was on academic probation. Yet another grade the following year, this time in Soviet studies, my mother's field, led to an explosion at home and my decision to switch majors from government to English. This change gave me the opportunity to start reading what most of my classmates had read long before. Since then, my life has never been the same. For the first time I became absorbed with reading. My days and nights were filled with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnson, Keats, Flaubert, and the great Russian writers. What days, months, and years of enjoyment. What wonderful worlds to explore. What insights into the human condition. What superb examples to emulate, however feebly, in my own writing. (Flaubert said, "Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.") AN enormous boost to my new-found fondness for reading came when a friend gave me a share in the New York Society Library, a private library and the oldest in the city. Two-hundred thousand books are available only a few blocks from where I live. I enjoy reading plays. Over the years I have been able to read through the library's collection of plays by Ibsen, O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Anouilh, and Giraudoux. Once begun, I have faithfully continued reading. Last year I read 211 short stories of Chekhov. Last month I finished "The Brothers Karamazov." I am now reading the short stories of the Russian writer Ivan Bunin (1870-1953). My fondness for reading is like the old story of the tortoise and the hare. Though starting late, I have caught up and now find myself, says he modestly, better read than most of my friends, many of whom read classic literature prior to the age of 21 and now only read what they find in their briefcases. (When it comes to foreign languages, alas, I remain an ignoramus.) A joy of reading is that one good book leads to another. Montaigne, for example, is among my favorite writers, providing wise counsel on the difficulties of daily life. In her collection of essays, "The Roman Way," Edith Hamilton describes the Latin poet Horace as "a poetical Montaigne." Forthwith I went to my library to take out books on Horace. An enriching experience! In an essay I recently finished, the poet Joseph Brodsky refers to W. H. Auden as "our transatlantic Horace." Montaigne, via Edith Hamilton, led me to Horace. With encouragement from Brodsky, Horace may lead me to Auden. Who knows where my reading will take me next. One thing is certain: It will be an adventure.

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