Obscene. Repulsive. Pornographic.

Or how Harry Potter led me down the wicked road to hell…

Picture this.

A hot summer night, a crowded bookstore teeming with customers. Dozens of readers, all ages, snaking around the rows of books, waiting for midnight to buy Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. One side of the store was for those with pre-orders. The other side was for the rest of us. And so we sat, reading books we’d brought with us from home, listening to iPods, chatting softly.

I was alone, sitting in the middle of the Ns. I glanced at the bookshelf beside me.

Nabokov. Lolita. I’d never read it, nor had I seen the movies. I was curious and bored so I opened it and read the opening two paragraphs–

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

–and fell under the spell of a Russian writer who felt his English imperfect. (The mind boggles.)

Ironically, I was there to buy a children’s book and ended up with Lolita in my hand.

Ironically, after keeping it with me for almost an hour, they wouldn’t allow me to buy it. Only the one book could be bought after midnight that night–the one we were all in line for. Otherwise they feared they’d never close.

Ironically, both books are near the top of banned book lists.

Picture this.

Me, a few years later, browsing through the offerings on audible. And what should I find but… Lolita.

Read by Jeremy Irons. Nabokov’s words in Irons’ voice. If the devil has truly mastered temptation, surely this is it? I could not resist, reader. I could not.

And thus I discovered the exquisite language of Nabokov in a disturbing but beautiful book that transcends the sum of its parts.

How do you justify Lolita to those who are horrified by its subject matter? You can’t. This book was once banned in France. In France. Its subject matter is an adult man obsessed with–in love with–a very underaged young girl. And he acts on it. But don’t be misled. It is more than that, much more. Lolita has been named one of the most important books of the 20th Century, one of the best books of the 20th Century, and it is, oh reader, it is. I could rattle off its use of the unreliable narrator, of a point of view that left me, by the end, questioning much of what I’d assumed with my head spinning. I could post quote after quote–from reviewers, from the work itself–and I woulld not change your mind.

Nor would I want to.

I understand, you see. I understand why so many will never want to read this book.

I understand and I would tell you, if you read that opening and didn’t find your spine tingling just a bit at the language, if you didn’t feel the pull to keep going, then don’t read, don’t approve, just don’t.


Don’t ban it. Don’t remove it from library shelves so that others must live without choice, because you decided your choice should be for all of us.

Picture this.

A place in which one of those most stunning books in the English language is banned. A book that doesn’t justify its crime. A narrator who admits his sin.

This is not a place in which I want to live.

Nor do you, reader. Nor, really, do you.

From Salon.
Some say the Great American Novel is Huckleberry Finn, some say it’s The Jungle, some say it’s The Great Gatsby. But my vote goes to the tale with the maximum lust, hypocrisy and obsession — the view of America that could only have come from an outsider — Nabokov’s Lolita. The author had in earlier versions set the story in Europe with a French temptress, but that could never have been — there is something quintessentially, inevitably American about the novel…. Those who bought “Lolita” looking for mere prurient kicks must surely have been disappointed. Lolita is dark and twisted all right, but it’s also a corruptly beautiful love story of two tragically alike, id-driven souls… What makes Lolita a work of greatness isn’t that its title has become ingrained in the vernacular, isn’t that was a generation ahead of America in fetishizing young girls. No, it is the writing, the way Nabokov bounces around in words like the English language is a toy trunk, the sly wit, the way it’s devastating and cynical and heartbreaking all at once. Mary Elizabeth Williams

From Cornell University.

Friends and colleagues discouraged Nabokov from publishing Lolita. The chronicle of seduction between the middle-aged Humbert and the pubescent Lolita threatened to be controversial. In the end, it was his wife, Véra, who convinced Nabokov to proceed. Despite the warnings of friends, Lolita appeared in Paris in September 1955, published by a press better known for its pornographic stock than for its efforts to make the works of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, and Henry Miller available to a wider reading public. The book’s appearance sparked a flurry of publicity in France, where it was banned as a “dangerous book” until 1958. Lolita would eventually be banned in England, Australia, Burma, Belgium, and Austria and, at the local level, in some American communities. The controversy over the book only fueled sales. On September 17, 1958, the Cincinnati Public Library banned Lolita. The following week it reached number one on the bestseller list.

Students respond:

3.4. I don’t think it should be banned, of course. Honestly before we read this, I thought it would be more provocative than it is because I heard it was a banned novel in many places in the U.S. But it’s not that provocative afterall. More importantly, this is a literary masterpiece. The art far outweighs the maybe provocative aspects of the book. Come on, are we going to ban the painting by Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, just because it is “provocative?”

Have you ever had a book banned? Supported the censoring or banning or a book? Fought against same?


Patricia Burroughs
“Censorship is like telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” Mark Twain


About Patricia Burroughs

Patricia Burroughs [aka Pooks, and yes, people really call her Pooks] is a fifth-generation Texan who loves books, football, dogs, movies, England, and traveling in her [email protected] camping trailer. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her high school sweetheart and believes in happily ever after, if you understand that it takes work, compromise, and sometimes just being too stubborn to quit. Visit her bookshelf at the BVC Ebookstore.


Obscene. Repulsive. Pornographic. — 7 Comments

  1. It does take a little something to get over the apprehension and try the book. It happened to me in a strange way. In doing genealogical research I discovered that the husband of a second cousin of my mother had been Nabakov’s doctor when Nabakov was spending the summer of 1953 as an author in residence at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, OR. ‘Twas during that summer he finished Lolita. A bit of trivia of that sort tipped the scales for me. I finally acquired a copy.

    The content still makes me uneasy, but the use of language is resplendent.

    • The language is the temptation that drew me in, and held me by the throat, and left me staggered by the end. Yes, my devil is silver-tongued, if he wants to tempt me. I love Lolita.

  2. In his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov explicates with verve, precision, and passion his approach to literature: for him, it was the supreme intellectual game. Good readers must not identify with characters, but must observe them as one observes butterflies carefully pinned to a display. (He was also an accomplished lepidopterist.) And so he wrote a novel about complex, damaged people and their power imbalances, positively forcing the reader to maintain that distance from sympathy.

    • It would be particularly difficult to identify closely with Humbert Humbert. But the thing is, it’s also a redeeming grace of the book. You’re not required to understand or forgive; the author doesn’t try to win your sympathy.

  3. Also exceptional is the quality of film adapted from Nabokov’s Lolita. Not only is it a splendid work of film-making, but fairly faithful to its source. Unless one thinks that casting an actress older than the 13 year-old Lolita and changing the Lolita’s age upward a bit for the film is a travesty of the novel — which some do. With Hollywood’s record of abuse of child actors, particularly girls, particularly in the sexual side of things, it’s hard for me to agree with that judgment.

    I remember reading the novel for the first time — junior in high school — and becoming breathless during Humbert’s spin through highway motel America. I’d done that kind of travel so much, on the summer family vacation, and here was a whole other side of it. Reading the novel a second time, in college, we had already had the motel revolution in which the motel proprietors had changed from locals to immigrant Indians — which you see so well depicted in Mira Nair’s film, 1991, Mississippi Masala. This provoked another kind of thinking about Humbert’s motel-highway spin — he didn’t have the interstates.

    Any time you read Lolita there’s more to think about in terms of our cultural and material history as a nation.

    Love, C.

      • The 1962, b&w, Stanley Kubrick production with James Mason, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers and Shelly Winters.

        The final scenes in which Humbert Humbert after many years tracks down run-away Lolita, are among the saddest things you ever will see — encapsulating on the screen the same sad sad sad of everyone involved that is in the final pages of the book. Among other things — and no small thing at all, is just how terrible and unending the damage to the victim is, inflicted by a pedophile* abuser.

        I haven’t seen the other one and don’t think I ever will, despite Jeremy Irons.

        Love, C.

        * For some reason what Humbert Humbert is, seems to be descriminated as hebephilia, because of his focus on 11 – 14 year old girls, which is different from pedophilia, which supposedly means younger than that. Personally, I think the reason some people, particularly film critics call it hebephilia instead of pedophilia, is because it sounds less icky, perhaps, to their ears — and we don’t really want to go into those issues when performing literary or film criticism in terms of aethetics and so on. Which is why we still are determined to keep Birth of A Nation in the film pantheon forever and ever world without end amen.