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V. Nabokov, on Beginning Reading

"I learned to read English before I could read Russian. My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar—Ben, Dan, Sam and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts—"Who is Ben?" "He is Dan," "Sam is in bed," and so on. Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ—for the initial lessons, at least—words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud in the possession of certain tools ("Ben has an axe"), they drift now with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory; and, akin to the mad alphabet of an optician's chart, the grammar-book lettering looms again before me."

from Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage International 1989 edition)

Comments

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Thanks for this quote from this wonderful book.

I think there are many of us less eloquent than Nabokov who have similarly transformed the "Dick and Jane" type of stories into real literature as children--that is, something that summons up our own imagination in far richer ways than the adults who poo-poo them ever understand. I remember endlessly reading Lois Lenski's PAPA SMALL to my two-year old daughter, and since I found it less than spellbinding, I finally asked her why she liked it so much. She thought a moment, and then said, "Because he's so beautiful." Hmmm.... As an author and illustrator of books for the very young I've never let myself forget that astute bit of literary criticism.

Anne, I just loved Speak, Memory. I read it for the first time this spring. Your comment reminds me, too, of how often my son has loved books that I'm only so-so about. I recognize that they speak to him in a way that I miss.

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