One Night as an Accidental English Teacher

by Matthew Koslowski on December 9, 2009
in Anecdotes

Last night, after having dinner with some friends from dancing, my best friend Jenna and I ventured across Harvard Square from the Garage Mall to the Coop, otherwise known as the Harvard Coop Bookstore.

Down the center of the building there is a row of tables each stacked high with books. On either side of the tables are shelf displays each about as tall as a man, though much wider, and beyond those are walls lined with books from floor to ceiling. I like to be surrounded by books and I have spent many a night and many a weekend afternoon there.

The Coop is open and airy. But it seems a little too tidy. When I walk in there I feel almost as if I am in a museum. I miss the atmosphere of the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore, in which all the shelves were floor to ceiling and in between were aisles you could only shimmy down.

When we walked in, I hadn’t planned to teach a lesson on literature.

Jenna and I stopped at one table in the middle of the rows. I was passing my eyes over the table, not looking at any of the books hoping something would jump out at me.

Two girls stopped on the other side of the table. “Ugh, Lolita. I hated this book.”

“Why?” I asked the girl who spoke.

She looked over at her friend before answering. “Well, it didn’t click with me. It didn’t make any sense to me.”

“See, that was precisely the point.” Each girl cocked her head and gave me an inquisitive look. The girl who spoke had looked uncomfortable when she said Lolita had not clicked with her.

“Nabokov wrote this novel to make us uncomfortable,” I said, “to unsettle us. He wrote with such poetry and passion. He makes you want to fall in love with Lolita. And you do start to fall for her, only to remember that she’s what? Twelve or thirteen?”

The girls looked at each other for a second and then back at me.

“Even the way Nabokov wrote the novel is a work of art. He rode the buses around Cornell, eavesdropping on girls around that age. He wanted to accurately render the way she spoke, the way she held herself.

“Remember, this is Humbert’s memoir,” I continued. “Think about who is writing it and why. What did you think of the Foreword?”

“I didn’t get that either.”

“Think about the book with it and without it. The Foreword was written by a psychiatrist trying to justify and explain Humbert. The novel changes completely if you ignore the Foreword.”

“Wow. Are you a professor?” She stood for a minute. “Yeah, it would be different.” What I was saying was changing the way she thought about Lolita.

“No. I’m a high school English teacher. Or I will be.”

The friend of the girl who spoke started to walk away from the table.

“Well, thanks,” the girl who spoke said as she started to walk away. She stopped, looked down at the stack of copies of Lolita, touched the top copy, and then caught up with her friend.


2 Responses to “One Night as an Accidental English Teacher”
  1. Jessica says:

    Great post as always. I’ve been considering reading Lolita for a while, but was a little scared about the content and “not getting it” also. I might just give it a try.

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    I can understand why you might be hesitant about the content of Lolita. I think the poetry of Nabokov’s words is well-worth the effort. In fact, the push and pull that Nabokov creates, writing enchantingly about love and drawing you in until you recoil in horror because you realize he’s writing about a child, that psychological effect, is what most interests me in the book. Did Humbert Humbert love Lolita? When can we first feel love? How reliable of a narrator is Humbert? How reliable are any of us?