With September here and class back in session, The Afterword asked several Canadian authors to answer this question: If you could add one book to the high school curriculum – a book which students couldn't graduate with until it was read – what would it be, and why? Here, novelist Damian Tarnopolsky discusses his pick for the curriculum: Nabokov's Mary.
Why should everyone have to read the same book?
Reading creates community, but just as importantly, reading cultivates individuals. So it's not necessarily wise to force a book down every student's throat, on pain of not graduating. If the aim is to foster a love of reading, you need to find the book that speaks to you. Also I'm not sure I could say which author would make the best citizens, or impart the most practical lessons for adult life. Marcus Aurelius? Stendhal? Wallace Stevens? (Though if everyone had to read his Collected Poems, maybe someone would come along who could explain it to me.) All that said, if you twisted my arm, late at night, I’d probably recommend Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel, Mary. Why this? For romantic reasons, as much as anything else. He wrote it when he was 26, already in exile, in Berlin. It’s a story of first love, felt and written with all the intensity of youth, but it’s also full of nostalgia. There's a feeling of great things having passed even as, in fact, new ones are rushing up ahead. I wish I’d read it when I was finishing high school myself. The epigraph is from Pushkin: “Having recalled intrigues of former years, having recalled a former love.” It ends with a surprise that’s both a farewell to yearning and a fresh coat of it, and that seems to fit too. Because it’s Nabokov, every sentence is perfect. And it’s short. –
• Damian Tarnopolsky is the author of Goya’s Dog (Penguin Books).