Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s question is:
Should we be assigning Lolita in schools or is it taking up valuable syllabus space another book could have?
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, who is a pedophile. He narrates the story, attempting to gain reader sympathy as he describes seducing the twelve-year-old Dolores after he becomes her stepfather. Critics like to talk about how he gains this reader sympathy; they are fascinated and repulsed by it. They also like to talk about other things like how the book could be read as a travel story. I assume this allows them to avoid the disturbing subject matter.
So. Do we even need to be reading this book? It’s the most disgusting and upsetting thing I have ever read. I was assigned to read it in school and even got stuck giving a presentation and writing a paper on it. I had to show up at my professor’s office hours once or twice to “discuss” the project. This really meant I was using her almost as counseling to pull myself through emotionally.
One could argue that this book might be doing some important work by, I don’t know, making us look at the way we treat pedophiles? I’m not sure. I don’t think it really does any work except attempt to titillate the reader. And when you consider that most college courses assign about eight books a semester, I have to wonder, if you are narrowing down your field to eight books, do you need to pass over another book for Lolita of all things?
I’m not saying that we need to shield college students from difficult subjects, but when do address these subjects, there should be a clear purpose. Lolita does not offer enough social commentary, in my mind, to warrant emotionally scarring a room full of undergrads when another important book could just as easily be placed on the syllabus in its stead. Just because someone called a book a classic doesn’t mean we all need to read it.