How Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Lolita, “My Most Difficult Book”: A 1989 Documentary

How many of us could write a book with the impact of Lolita? The task, as revealed in the BBC Omnibus documentary above, lay almost beyond even the formidable literary powers of Vladimir Nabokov — almost, but obviously not quite. It did push him into new aesthetic, cultural, and compositional realms, as evidenced by his memories of drafting the novel on index cards in roadside motels (and when faced with especially noisy or drafty accommodations, in the backseat of the parked car) while road-tripping though the United States. The documentary's subject is the exiled aristocrat novelist's experience writing and publishing Lolita, the book that would make him world-famous — as well as the experience that brought him to the time and place that made such a cultural coup possible.

Aired in 1989, a dozen years after Nabokov's death, My Most Difficult Book features interviews with the novelist's Ferrari-driving son and translator Dmitri, his scholar-biographer Brian Boyd, and his younger admirer-colleagues including Martin Amis, A.S. Byatt, and Edmund White. That last describes Nabokov's novels as "great systems of meaning in which every element refers to every other one," and Lolita marked a new height in his achievement in that form.

But the book's popularity, or at least its initial wave of popularity, may be better explained by the controversy surrounding the elements of its by now well-known premise: the refined middle-aged European narrator, the coarse twelve-year-old stepdaughter whom he contrives to sexually possess — and succeeds in sexually possessing — as they drive across America, a vast land whose look, feel, and language Nabokov took pains to capture and repurpose.

"There are a lot of literalists out there," says Amis, "who will think that you can't write a novel like Lolita without being a secret slaver after young girls." That was as true in 1989 as it was in 1955, when the book was first published, and indeed as true as it is today. Well into middle age, we learn in the documentary, strangers would ask Dmitri what it was like to be the son of a "dirty old man," and in archive interview footage we see Nabokov address the public conflation of himself and Humbert Humbert, Lolita's pedophiliac narrator. A serious chess enthusiast, Nabokov describes himself as writing novels as he would solve chess problems he posed to himself. What could present a more rigorous challenge than to tell a story, at a high artistic level, from the perspective of a monster? But Nabokov, as he admitted to one interviewer, was indeed a monster, at least according to one definition offered by his much-consulted English dictionary: "A person of unnatural excellence."

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Vladimir Nabokov on Lolita: Just Another Great Love Story?

The Notecards on Which Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Lolita: A Look Inside the Author’s Creative Process

Vladimir Nabokov’s Script for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita: See Pages from His Original Draft

Vladimir Nabokov Marvels Over Different Lolita Book Covers

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Cambridge University Professor Cooks 4000-Year-Old Recipes from Ancient Mesopotamia, and Lets You See How They Turned Out

Those of us who’ve dedicated a portion of our isolation to the art of sourdough have not suffered for a lack of information on how that particular sausage should get made.

The Internet harbors hundreds, nay, thousands of complicated, contrary, often contradictory, extremely firm opinions on the subject. You can lose hours…days…weeks, agonizing over which method to use.

The course for Bill Sutherland's recent culinary experiment was much more clearly charted.

As documented in a series of now-viral Twitter posts, the Cambridge University professor of Conservation Biology decided to attempt a Mesopotamian meal, as inscribed on a 3770-year-old recipe tablet containing humankind’s oldest surviving recipes.

As Sutherland told Bored Panda’s Liucija Adomaite and Ilona Baliūnaitė, the translated recipes, found in Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights of the Yale Babylonian Collection, were “astonishingly terse” and “perplexing,” leading to some guess work with regard to onions and garlic.

In addition to 25 recipes, the book has photos and illustrations of various artifacts and essays that “present the ancient Near East in the light of present-day discussion of lived experiences, focusing on family life and love, education and scholarship, identity, crime and transgression, demons, and sickness.”

Kind of like a cradle of civilization Martha Stewart Living, just a bit less user friendly with regard to things like measurements, temperature, and cooking times. Which is not to say the instructions aren't step-by-step:

Stew of Lamb

Meat is used. 

You prepare water. 

You add fat. 

You add fine-grained salt, barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. 

You crush and add leek and garlic.

The meal, which required just a couple hours prep in Sutherland’s non-ancient kitchen sounds like something he might have ordered for delivery from one of Cambridge's Near Eastern restaurants.

The lamb stew was the hit of the night.

Unwinding, a casserole of leeks and spring onion, looked inviting but was “a bit boring.”

Elamite Broth was "peculiar but delicious," possibly because Sutherland substituted tomato sauce for sheep’s blood.

It’s an admittedly meaty proposition. Only 2 of the 25 recipes in the collection are vegetarian (“meat is not used.”)

And even there, to be really authentic, you’d have to sauté everything in sheep fat.

(Sutherland swapped in butter.)

via Bored Panda

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her isolation projects are sourdough and an animation with free downloadable posters, encouraging the use of face coverings to stop the spread of COVID-19. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

16th Century Bookwheels, the E-Readers of the Renaissance, Get Brought to Life by 21st Century Designers

Most of us, through our computers or our even our phones, have access to more books than we could ever read in one lifetime. That certainly wouldn't have been the case in, say, the middle ages, when books — assuming you belonged to the elite who could read them in the first place — were rare and precious objects. Both books and literacy became more common during the Renaissance, though acquaintance with both could still be considered the sign of a potentially serious scholar. And for the most serious Renaissance scholars of all, Italian military engineer Agostino Ramelli designed the bookwheel, an elaborate mechanical device allowing the user to turn from one book to another in relatively quick succession.

First drawn by Ramelli in 1588 (and previously featured here on Open Culture in 2017) but never actually constructed by him, the bookwheel has attracted renewed attention in the 21st century. "In 2018, a group of undergraduate engineering students at the Rochester Institute of Technology set out to build two," writes Atlas Obscura's Claire Voon. "They began by diligently studying the Italian engineer’s illustration, then procured historically accurate materials, such as European beech and white oak.

With the help of modern power tools and processes, such as computer modeling and CNC routing, they brought it to life." You can see the RIT bookwheels under construction and in action in the video above. (Its schematics, near-impossibly complex by the standards of Ramelli's day, are also available at RIT's web site.)

Others have also brought Ramelli's design into reality. In the video just above, for example, we have writer Joshua Foer (previously featured here for his work on the science of memorization) taking his own reproduction for a spin. "It's a ferris wheel for books," Foer explains, "so that a scholar can have eight books in front of them, sort of like tabbed browsing before tabbed browsing." The device's cherry wood and laser-cut gears are certainly handsome, but what of its practicality? "I often read multiple books at one time, and this way I can have them all open in front of me." Most all of us start more books than we can finish, and as we attempt to read them all in parallel, occasionally one or two do get forgotten. Hence one advantage, even in our modern times, of Ramelli's book wheel: any book placed on it becomes as unignorable as the machine itself.

Related Content:

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renaissance Invention Created to Make Books Portable & Help Scholars Study (1588)

Discover the Jacobean Traveling Library: The 17th Century Precursor to the Kindle

The Art of Making Old-Fashioned, Hand-Printed Books

Wonderfully Weird & Ingenious Medieval Books

Wearable Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Manuscripts & Turned Them into Clothes

How to Memorize an Entire Chapter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Animated Introduction to the Pioneering Anthropologist Margaret Mead

Modern Western societies haven't solved the problem of sex, but Samoa has the answer. Or at least it does according to the work of influential anthropologist Margaret Mead, subject of the animated introduction from Alain de Botton's School of Life above. Her mentor Franz Boas, the founder of anthropology in the United States, saw not a world progressing "in a linear fashion from barbarism to savagery to civilization" but "teeming with separate cultures, each with their own unique perspectives, insights, and efficiencies."

Though Mead's time living among the natives on the distant islands of Samoa came at Boas' suggestion, she already believed that "isolated cultures could serve as laboratories that would reveal ways of living that the modern world had forgotten about, but needed to remember." The resulting book, 1928's Coming of Age in Samoa, turned Mead into the most famous anthropologist in the world. In it she describes Samoan culture as "far more open and comfortable with sex than the modern United States. Little children in Samoa knew all about masturbation, and learned about intercourse and other acts through first-hand observation, but thought of it as no more scandalous or worthy of comment than death or birth."

Mead also noted an acceptance of not just homosexuality but a natural shift in sexual orientation over time — a condition bound to intrigue a serious scholar who herself led a rather unconventional life, "simultaneously involved with successive husbands and her ever-present female lover." Her analysis of Samoa, which informed the worldviews of such influential figures as childrearing guru Benjamin Spock, would take on an even broader appeal in the 1960s, when a rising counterculture sought inspiration in its push to transform Western society. Proponents of the "sexual revolution" and its loosening of norms found a natural ally in Mead, and traces of her life and work remain in fragments of the Summer of Love up to and including Hair, one of whose minor characters has her name.

Mead also comes up in Hunter Thompson's 1971 epitaph for the counterculture, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The scene is the National District Attorneys Association's Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, at which a participant suggests that Mead partakes in the substance known as marijuana. The "drug expert" onstage replies thus: "At her age, if she did smoke grass, she'd have one hell of a trip." Though Mead publicly showed sympathy for addicts, whom she described as "casualties of a badly organized society," her own experiences with mind-altering substances are less well documented. But then, her time in Samoa may well have been the only consciousness-expanding trip she needed.

Related Content:

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The History of Western Social Theory, by Alan MacFarlane, Cambridge University

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss Remembered

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Behold Octavia Butler’s Motivational Notes to Self

Handwritten notes on the inside cover of one of Octavia E. Butler’s commonplace books, 1988

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining. —Octavia E. Butler

Like many authors, the late Octavia E. Butler took up writing at a young age.

At 11, she was churning out tales about horses and romance.

At 12, she saw Devil Girl from Mars, and figured (correctly) she could tell a better story than that, using 2 fingers to peck out stories on the Remington typewriter her mother bought at her request.

At 13, she found a copy of The Writer magazine abandoned on a bus seat, and learned that it was possible to submit her work for publication.

After a decade’s worth of rejection slips, she sold her first two stories, thanks in part to her association with the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshop, which she became involved with on the recommendation of her mentor, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.

She went on to become the first science fiction writer to receive a prestigious MacArthur “genius” award, garnering multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for her work.

An asteroid is named after her, as is a mountain on Pluto’s moon.

Hailed as the Mother of Afro Futurism, she won the PEN American Center lifetime achievement award in writing.

But professional success never clouded her view of herself as the 10-year-old writer who was unsure if library-loving black kids like her would be allowed inside a bookstore.

Identifying as a writer helped her move beyond her crippling shyness and dyslexia. As she wrote in an autobiographical essay, "Positive Obsession":

I believed I was ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless. I also thought that everyone would notice these faults if I drew attention to myself. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I grew to be six feet tall. Boys in particular seemed to assume that I had done this growing deliberately and that I should be ridiculed for it as often as possible.

I hid out in a big pink notebook—one that would hold a whole ream of paper. I made myself a universe in it. There I could be a magic horse, a Martian, a telepath….There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these.

She developed a lifelong habit of cheering herself on with motivational notes, writing them in her journals, on lined notebook paper, in day planners and on repurposed pages of an old wall calendar.

She held herself accountable by writing out demanding schedules to accompany her lofty, documented goals.

And though she wearied of the constant invitations to serve on literary panels devoted to science fiction writers of color, at which she’d be asked the same questions she’d answered dozens of times before, she was resolute about providing opportunities for young black writers … and readers, who found reflections of themselves in her characters. As she remarked in an interview with The New York Times

When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.

Her brand of science fictiona label she often tried to duck, identifying herself on her business card simply as “writer”serves as a lens for considering contemporary issues: sexual violence, gun violence, climate change, gender stereotypes, the problems of late-stage capitalism, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and, not least, racism.

She sidestepped utopian science fiction, believing that imperfect humans are incapable of  forming a perfect society. “Nobody is perfect," she told Vibe:

One of the things I've discovered even with teachers using my books is that people tend to look for 'good guys' and 'bad guys,' which always annoys the hell out of me. I'd be bored to death writing that way. But because that's the only pattern they have, they try to fit my work into it.

Learn more about the life and work of Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) here.

I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novels will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not.

This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months . Each of my novels does this.

So be it! I will find the way to do this. See to it! So be it! See to it!

My books will be read by millions of people!

I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood

I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops

I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons

I will help poor black youngsters go to college

I will get the best of health care for my mother and myself

I will hire a car whenever I want or need to.

I will travel whenever and wherever in the world that I choose

My books will be read by millions of people!

So be it! See to it!

via Austin Kleon

Related Content: 

Why Should We Read Pioneering Sci-Fi Writer Octavia Butler? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopian Novel Features a Fascistic Presidential Candidate Who Promises to “Make America Great Again”

Watch a 5-Part Animated Primer on Afrofuturism, the Black Sci-Fi Phenomenon Inspired by Sun Ra

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


A Collection of 500 Free Textbooks from Springer

FYI. To help support everyone during the COVID-19 lockdown, Springer has released a ton of free textbooks. Since the Springer website isn't super user-friendly, someone created a webpage that makes it easier to find and even download these texts. The books will remain free at least through the end of July. So start rummaging now.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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An Introduction to Thought Forms, the Pioneering 1905 Theosophist Book That Inspired Abstract Art: It Returns to Print on November 6th

“It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the impact that the late-nineteenth century (and ongoing) occult movement called Theosophy had on global culture,” Mitch Horowitz writes in his introduction to the newly republished 1905 Theosophical book, Thought Forms. That impact manifested “spiritually, politically, and artistically” in the work of literary figures like James Joyce and William Butler Yeats and religious figures like Jiddu Krishnamurti, handpicked as a teenager by Theosophist leader Charles W. Leadbeater to become the group’s messianic World Teacher.

The Theosophical Society helped re-introduce Buddhism, or a newly Westernized version, to Western Europe and the U.S., publishing the 1881 “Buddhist Catechism” by Henry Steel Olcott, a former Colonel for the Union Army. Olcott co-founded the society in New York City in 1875 with Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky. Soon afterward, the group of spiritual seekers relocated to India. “Nearly a century before the Beatles’ trek to Rishikesh,” writes Horwitz, “Blavatsky and Olcott laid the template for the Westerner seeking wisdom in the East.”

Theosophy also had a significant influence on modern art, including the work of Wassily Kandinsky, until recently considered the first Abstract painter—that is until the paintings of Hilma af Klint came to be widely known. The reclusive Swedish artist, whom we’ve covered here a few times before, came first, though no one knew it at the time. After showing her revolutionary abstract work to philosopher and onetime German and Austrian Theosophical Society leader Rudolf Steiner, she was told to hide it for another fifty years.

Theosophy gained many prominent converts in the UK, Europe, and around the world. Af Klint joined the Swedish society and remained a member until 1915. The symbolism in her mysterious abstractions, which she attributed to clairvoyant communication with “an entity named Amaliel,” may also have been suggested by the drawings in Thought Forms, an illustrated book created by Theosophical Society leaders Leadbeater and Annie Besant, who was “an early suffragist and political activist,” notes Sacred Bones Books. The small press will release a new edition of the book online and in stores on November 6. (See their Kickstarter page here and video trailer below.)

Besant was “far ahead of her time as an artist and thinker. Theosophy was the first occult group to open its doors to women and Thought Forms offers a reminder that the history of modernist abstraction and women’s contribution to it is still being written.” Although that unfolding history centrally includes af Klint and Besant, the latter did not actually make all of the illustrations we find in this strange book. She and Leadbeater claimed to have received, through clairvoyant means, “forms caused by definite thoughts thrown out by one of them, and also watched the forms projected by other persons under the influence of various emotions.”

So Besant would write in 1896 in the Theosophical journal Lucifer. After these “experiments,” the two then described going into trances and viewing “auras, vortices, etheric matter, astral projections, energy forms, and other expressions from the unseen world.” The two described these visions to a collection of visual artists, who rendered them into the paintings in the 1905 book.

Among those who do study the Theosophical Society’s impact, its first generation of publications—especially Olcott’s “Buddhist Catechism” and Blavatsky’s 1888 The Secret Doctrine—are especially well-known texts. But Thought Forms may prove “the most widely read, lasting, and directly influential book to emerge from the revolution that Theosophy ignited," Horowitz argues.

"By many estimates, Thought Forms marks the germination of abstract art”—originated through several artists' best guess at what visions of psychic phenomena might look like. You can follow Sacred Bones' Kickstarter campaign here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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