Some Thoughts on Reading Lolita at 14

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Some books change lives, some define them.

When I was 14, I read Lolita for the first time. It was the summer because there is no other time to read Lolita, not for the first time anyway, and even though I hadn’t read it yet, I knew enough to know that much. I also knew enough to read it barefoot and curled up in the backseat of a hot car with the windows only slightly cracked as we drove for hours to reach our vacation spot, a small house on a warm beach with cold water. I knew enough to know how I was supposed to feel about the book; I’d already read a book of collected interviews with Nabokov, in which he insisted again and again that Lolita was to be read as nothing more than a road-trip comedy, a complicated love letter to America. And so that’s how I tried to read it; it’s certainly how I talked about it, particularly the following fall when I went back to school, to an English teacher I was trying to impress.

It would be easy for me to say now that I was too young to read it then, that I wasn’t ready for it, that I was too naive, too impressionable to be critical of its message. And maybe that’s true. Maybe I wasn’t critical enough, or even at all. Because what I remember most about reading Lolita when I was 14 is that despite whatever detachment I’d thought I’d achieved, never before had the ending of a book, never had the death of a character—one once so important, but now little more than a footnote—broken me in quite that way. The break was quiet, fruitless; there were no tears, no sounds came out. I didn’t cry—I couldn’t cry—because every time my eyes filled up, I heard the voice of my field hockey coach who had, the fall before, seen my eyes wet and shining after getting hit hard right above my shin guard and rubbed my back, telling me, “You know, you’re really beautiful when you cry.”

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It’s just a road-trip farce, I told myself. I forced myself to have the hard eyes of a doll. They stayed that way, stared that way, for a long time.

When I was 20 and pregnant, married to a man I’d driven with back and forth and up and down across the country, I thought about reading Lolita again, but couldn’t because I was afraid, deep in the belief that books weren’t so much reflections of reality as they were prophecies of it. It wasn’t until much later, when I was 31 and divorced, alive and able to put the proper distance—which, in this case is a lot and also none at all—between myself and the lowly Lo, that I could approach Lolita again. By this point, I’d realized that the books that stayed with me the longest, the ones that landed the hardest, were the ones that defined something in me and in my world that I hadn’t been able to see before—things and ideas and feelings that had once been formless were suddenly given shape.

It’s a strange thing to find yourself in the pages you turn. Those stories are already finished; it’s hard not to feel like your own is too, that you can’t control how it ends. It feels, at times, like there is a responsibility to a narrative, that by virtue of connecting to these books, you belong to them as much as they belong to you. But, of course, this is an illusion, or maybe it’s as simple as self-delusion, this certainty that you’re a part of something more permanent than a mere life. These are the books that offer us a taste of immortality, of being the stuff of myth and legend, but they are not immutable—and neither, of course, are we. And so, when I read Lolita again at 31, I found myself doing what I hadn’t allowed myself to do more than half a lifetime ago: I wept.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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