'Lolita,' One of the Most Influential Books of My Life

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library

'Lolita,' One of the Most Influential Books of My Life

Lolita Sunglasses Popular Office
In this photograph, My Nguyen attempts to reinterpret the famed Kubrick film poster of Lolita in a contemporary office setting, while still conforming to Mies van der Rohe's architectural vision of restrained beauty and maximum simplicity. The key word here is "attempt." / Photograph by Kathryn Sigler.

In an effort, gentle reader, to have something to discuss with my junior year high school crush, I did something any shy, but sensible bibliophilic 16 year-old would do:  I mimicked his reading habits. First, there were the war-torn stories of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which he toted in a clear plastic backpack. Next, it was Yusef Komonyakaa’s brilliant Dien Cai Dau, which made me crazy, too — over Komonyakaa that is. (“Dien cai dau” means "crazy in the head" in Vietnamese). And while these two works have significantly influenced the way I appreciate literature, it wasn’t until I saw my crush reading Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita that my (puppy) love for him was eventually replaced by my (very real, very long-lasting) love for Nabokov.

No book has moved me in simultaneous states of obstreperous laughter, deep sympathy, and utter revulsion as masterfully as Lolita. The writing is unarguably good—beautiful, even. The subject matter is profoundly repulsive. Indeed, it is the perverse central theme of the book that makes Plato’s indictment against poetry quite relevant: Stripped of its airs, Lolita, peppered with fancy-pants literary allusions, is nothing more than a book about a pathetic murderer and his bizarre penchant for a 12-year-old girl.
And yet, Lolita's relevance still unquestionably remains. Here is a story that transcended its lowly pulp fiction status and become an internationally renowned novel. Musicals, plays, and film adaptations (two of them!) were not immune to the retelling of Lolita; in fact, they were adapted in the very able hands of the cinematic and literary. It's as if the novel is the modern-day the equivalent of Les Miserables — if Les Miserables had car chases, gin and amazing puns.

Yes, it's been banned (in France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, Canada and, probably at some point, several libraries and bookstores in the United States).

Yes, it's been required reading.

Yes, it's been the source of Japanese cosplay fashion and an item used as political protest.

Wow. How many books can claim it's inspired at least half of these things? (OK, maybe the Harry Potter series, but still.) Seriously, if you haven't read Lolita, please put down whatever it is you're doing, go to your local library and immerse yourself in this grand specimen of cultural controversy. Then, gentle reader, you can decide for yourself if its relevance is at all justifiable.

Lolita Reading Glasses(In this photograph at left, My reinterprets her reinterpretation of the famed Kubrick film poster of Lolita by wearing reading glasses and actually reading the book instead of staring into a camera lens.)

The book begins, innocuously enough, with the famous opening sentences ringing like an incantation:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul."

In fact, the opening line dramatically does what any opening lines are supposed to do: Entice the reader to read on (are you listening, James Joyce?). The words are compellingly poetic, despite being maudlin. And this florid prose one sees at the beginning of the novel is, thankfully, tempered again and again by narrator Humbert Humbert's delightfully spot-on 1950s vernacular and wry cultural observations on America. Humbert's humor jabs, not nastily, but in defensive acknowledgment of how ridiculous and awful his tangled tale is. His approach to story-telling interweaves a thematic marriage of illicit love, lust, comedy, and woe that is at once horrifying, at once excessive, and altogether weirdly, touchingly sad.

And perhaps this is why I adore the book so much. Lolita is no doubt a complex novel. It wrestles with things I think about a lot: memory, morality, longing, criminal intent, sarcasm, the passage of time, the concept of love. And it impresses you with its skillful writing. It creeps you out.  It makes you giggle. It jars you with cognitive dissonance. It (may or may not) lie to you.

But, hey, I know I'm being fooled; Humbert says himself on the very first page that "you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style." And yet that's the thing: I don't mind being tricked if there is artfulness behind the lies. It's sort of like knowingly and willfully falling in love with a bad human who's really, really good at sweet talking. The compliments, the charming one-liners, the feigned tenderness are mere distractions to that which is utterly dishonorable, sure, but as long as you're cognizant of these facts, you really have no one but yourself to blame for the eventual heartbreak. Of course, the danger that lies (ha, get it?) in art and poetry is that it can trick unwitting people, can manipulate them into empathizing with a character like Humbert Humbert. If you aren't careful (and I trust you to be very, very careful, gentle reader), you may end up believing that maybe this old man really did love Lolita. Or did he?

Lolita Library Sunglasses(Donning a pair of cat-eye sunglasses while reading your library copy of Lolita may or may not help you decide whether Humbert Humbert is a reliable narrator. / Photograph by My Nguyen.)

Unfortunately, in true solipsistic fashion (that is to say, a first-person narrative, as Lolita is written in), you never gets to hear Lolita's version of events. Which means we can never fully trust Humbert Humbert as a narrator. Heck, Humbert Humbert isn't even his real name. Or, it means we must engage in the suspension of reality, which is the sole reason why life is seemingly 18,776 times more awesome for some folks, and why the Twilight series (book, not movie) is rumored to have raked in $300,000,000 worldwide. People, it seems, enjoy the noble engagement of make-believe.

Whatever path you choose to read this novel, you are still confronted with Humbert's possibly revisionist (though extremely well-written) life history, which details his origins, the etiology of his lewd attraction, the joyrides he and Lolita take around the United States, and the difficulties he encounters in maintaining this lurid lifestyle.

It does not, naturally, end well. What it may do, however, is enable a reader to feel strangely amused, verbally dazzled, intellectually stimulated, and morally shaken. It also gave me an acceptable avenue in which to talk to my precocious high school crush all those years ago, and who, it will be mentioned, is now a writer living in New York City.

My literary aspirations have resignedly approached zero over the years, but I think Lolita significantly contributed to my being a better writer. And a funnier person. And, it seems, more tolerant of good liars. (Reading this book is also apparently a good indicator that you have scored/will score really well on your SATs.)

And, of course, because of Lolita, my love for literature was ignited, and still remains ever-constant. Don't you want to be a well-read, verbally adroit, funny and tolerant person with cool writer friends in New York? Yeah. I thought so. Read this book. It's definitely been a light in my life — and I hope it will be in yours.
-- My Nguyen