Buying Books: The Perils of Nabokov

To the tune of: April March – Poor Lola

You are browsing the second-hand books in a small town’s famous covered market, waiting for the other reader to finish whatever the other reader is finishing, when you happen across a book. It is amongst the Books You Normally Read and The Books You Like The Cover Of, a most fortuitous placing, and it is a Book You Always Wanted To Read as well as a Book You’re Ashamed You’ve Never Read, and possibly a Book You Pretend You’ve Read.

It is Lolita, a book you are so familar with that you can trip the first three syllables of the book off your tongue, Lo-lee-ta, in a self-pleasing parody of the book’s first line which, again, you’ve never read. You’re excited, because you’re a fan of Nabokov, and you’ve never found this in a second-hand bookshop – whether through the prurience of proprieters or the retention of readers, you don’t know.

However, and there’s always a however in your Calvino mental life, there’s a reason you’ve not gone out of your way to buy this book in the past, though you’ve always been interested in buying it. That’s because, even though this is a classic work of literature by the greatest writer of the 20th Century, since the pornographers degraded the name Lolita and since the advent of a frothing, scare-mongered disgust in your country regarding the book’s subject, you wouldn’t want to be seen with the book in public. Especially if you’re a funny-looking person relative to the people around you, you wouldn’t want to be tarred with the Humbert brush.

But, here, the book has practically fallen into your hands. And you know it’s a great book, and he’s a great author, and you know your own reticence is silly and irrational. It’s just a book, with a plain cover and small text. You’re treating it like Mein Kampf. You’ll just wander over to the bookseller’s office, buy it quickly, and be done with this overthinking. Or perhaps you should pick up another book or two, to hide it?

You look up. The nearest Mac-wearing bookseller has already noticed your hesitation and she is a she, and is pursing her lips at you curiously, while you been stood there lost in thought. If you’d actually been browsing the book that wouldn’t have been a problem, but you’ve been standing, lost in thought,  and partially blocking the isle with your bags (I neglected to mention how weighed down you are with the accoutrements of two people, so that your every move is a collecting-heaving-shuffling-dropping motion). Now she’s caught your eye and smiles welcoming. In a moment she’s going to ask you if you need any help.

The moment is at hand. Before she can speak you collect and heave and shuffle and drop so you’re next to her, book in hand, asking politely for this one please. She smiles, glances at the book’s title, and changes her expression as she asks for the money. The smile’s still there, but you can’t tell if there’s confusion or disgust behind it, for the moment, as you hand over a note. By the time she has shuffled into the small office, found your change and extended her arm through the door, her smile has gone completely to be replaced with a intense stare with the bowed eyebrows you think are associated with curiosity. You leave, rapidly, and wait elsewhere for the other reader.

It has been three months. You’ve still not opened the book.

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  1. Jazmeister

    I’ve got an inverse kind of problem. I’ve only read Lolita. And the only piece of writing by Umberto Eco I’ve read is The Bomb and the General.


    1. Grill

      Good lord! You should read Invitation to a Beheading (and Darkness At Noon by Koestler if you like that), Pale Fire, The Luzhnin Defence…


  2. Marsh

    Back when I was a student, I found myself looking for a Martin Amis novel in the Cardiff Waterstones. For some reason the staff there had seen fit to begin the A-B fiction section right on the lowest shelf beneath the more conspicuously labelled erotic fiction section. I had a brief internal debate and then got down on my knees. As I grovelled on the floor I took a furtive, embarrassed look over my shoulder to see one of my tutors giving me a level stare. “I’m looking for Martin Amis,” I blurted, standing up hurriedly. He gave a polite smile of acknowledgement, glanced briefly at the pink curlicues covering the display behind me and wandered off into the store. “I’m not a pervert, you know!” I called after him, but I don’t think he heard.


    1. Grill

      He probably knew you were a pervert because he’d spotted Martin Amis hiding under the microfiche table reading Eric Van Lustbader.


  3. elle

    I can see why meeting a lecturer might be embarrassing (but is Martin Amis better than erotica?), but a girl who works in a book exchange? Who doesn’t know you, and presumably (given the working with books thing) has a vague idea that Lolita is an awesome piece of writing. Why care what she thinks?

    Mind you, I run to the other end of the spectrum and delight in publicly reading books of questionable content. I read The Ethical Slut twice on the tube to Richmond (it warranted re-reading).

    If the title, the connotation or people’s perceptions didn’t matter, I guess I wouldn’t feel so childishly pleased with myself.


  4. elle

    To partly counter my own point… this morning I was reading a feminist disability blog that talked about axes of privilege, and how they are easier to spot from one end than the other.

    I guess being female and not hideously ugly* puts one at the privileged end of the reading-porn-in-public axis.

    *With respect to other girls reading porn on the train, of course. Not in relation to the type of dashing gentleman who might buy a classic if controversial novel in a second-hand bookstore.

    And to save commenting a third time (sudden glut = slow morning at work) to say something different, I tried to get an early incarnation of the book group to read the Story of O, but our quietly breathing friend convinced me this was a bad idea.


  5. Grill

    I’ve never read either of those and I suspect, after my attempts above, that I won’t be able to get Maria to buy them for me from work. I’ll pop to the Charing Cross road tomorrow morning and dig amongst the shelves.

    Ooh, though I did find Fanny Hill on Stanza on my iPhone. Welcome filth!


  6. elle

    I’ve never read Fanny Hill, but the Black Dossier made me think I should.

    Story of O is a classic! But I have no perspective anymore, I can’t say whether it would be considered a good book by those readers who don’t share its particular brand of kinkiness.

    Bataille’s Story of the Eye is maybe more challenging in its brutal descriptions, but it has lots to say beyond the graphic sex.

    The Ethical Slut is self-help for poly people. Lots of earnest Americanness and shades of radical 70s feminism, but it’s still one of my favourite books ever. I think most people could benefit from reading it once.

    Oh, and skip de Sade unless you really want to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is in the kinky back-catalogue. Listy and dull, even the completed ones (120 Days was never finished).


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