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Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius Paperback – March 19, 2001

4.9 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

The title Nabokov's Blues is sure to bewilder many: was the great author depressed? Nothing of the sort--unknown to all but the most dedicated Lolita-philes, the great Russian author was a dedicated lepidopterist; the book, by fellow scientist Kurt Johnson and writer Steve Coates, explores his life's work with the Blue butterflies of South America. Nabokov brought the same gentle sensibility to his scientific work that he used in his writing and teaching careers, and the authors have found great new depths to the man that an army of biographers had failed to excavate. Entomology buffs will find much to love in Nabokov's Blues, with collecting trips into the field and anatomical detective work taking the forefront. Literati seeking new insights into the man's life will also be pleased to find his story told from a new perspective, focusing more on his exacting research than his tumultuous personal life.

Nabokov's life reflects 20th-century biology as well as literature; he involved himself in many of the great debates of his time from his vantage points at Cornell and Harvard (where he held a post at the Museum of Comparative Zoology). His contributions to our thinking about speciation, some of which have only come to light recently, are clear-headed and invaluable. The authors know Nabokov's life well and are eager to share this side of it with us; while he will always be better known for his literary work, Nabokov's Blues throws light into the shadows cast by his great stature. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Vladimir Nabokov gained world fame with Lolita and captivated sophisticated readers with a score of other fictions, but he took equal pride in his studies of butterflies, publishing several technical papers describing and classifying members of the subfamily Polyommatini, or Blues. Nabokovians have long known of his lepidopterous labors; insect experts, however, often and wrongly neglected the novelist's research, which turns out (despite his amateur status) to include a serious contribution to knowledge of New World tropical Blues. During the late 1980s, lepidopterist Johnson and his colleague Zsolt B lint discovered, in remote parts of Central America, specimens that strengthened or proved the arguments Nabokov had made. The new Blues, the story of their discovery and the meaning and relevance of Nabokov's scientific studies give Johnson and New York Times writer Coates some of the subjects for their hard-to-classify book, a rarely attempted sort of hybrid that crosses informed science writing with literary biography. On the science side, Johnson and Coates cover the place of butterfly studies in Nabokov's life; the contentious history of butterfly and moth taxonomy and the development of its basic rules; and the use of butterfly studies in larger debates on ecology and evolution. Literarily, they discuss the meaning of butterflies and moths in Nabokov's writings and show that specialist knowledge of lepidopterology enriches the ironies and punch lines readers can find in Nabokov's The Gift. Curiously, Nabokov's Blues yield startling insights into biological mimicryAan appropriate turn, given the novelist's own penchants for masks and doubles. Readers with a taste for science and literature will love this book, which is both entertaining and polymathically informativeArather like the English/Russian, naturalist/novelist, scholar/artist Nabokov himself. Eight b&w illus.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 372 pages
  • Publisher: McGraw-Hill Professional (March 19, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0071373306
  • ISBN-13: 978-0071373302
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,038,055 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Nabokov's Blues by Kurt Johnson and Stephen Coates is a testament to the dogged pursuit of their art by basic scientists such as Drs. Vladimir Nabokov and Kurt Johnson who continue their efforts with minimal funding and little glamour, and the roles played by happenstance and eccentricity in substantial discoveries. The adventure stories spun by Stephen Jay Gould in Wonderful Life and Jonathan Weiner in The Beak of the Finch in high profile, well-financed disciplines, and by Mark Jaffe in And No Birds Sing and now by Johnson and Coates in Nabokov's Blues in lesser known arenas, demonstrate how events and personalities conspire. Johnson and Coates capture this process and invite the reader into this adventure as the scientists and their colleagues pursue the magic of butterflies. Nabokov's Blues is an engaging retelling of the exciting set of adventures, in the field and in museums, begun by one of the great storytellers of the 20th Century, Vladimir Nabokov. With the disclaimer of a member of a class described by the reviewer as "eccentrics and polymaths" who played a minor role in Kurt Johnson's great adventure, I cannot disagree more strongly with Richard Conniff's assertion in his February 20,2000 review in The New York Times Book Review that "the authors fail to capture the full wonder and oddity of the enterprise." This is exactly what the authors accomplish.
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Format: Paperback
I picked up the paperback of this book because I'd heard about it when it was in hardback. For anyone who is fascinated by science, literature, history, sociology and much more, they will find the blend of story, information and insight in this book satisfying and enlightening. Its never gets dull because you're reading about a historical literary figure, and his biography, tons of information about science and exploration, the scientists who completed the formative work Nabokov began at Harvard before becoming famous after Lolita, and how this all fits together in todays biodiversity crisis and squabbles over whether Nabokov was really a bona fide scientist or just an boyish aficionado. I felt I had learned a great deal from this book but also enjoyed it. It is a great blend of historical fact, new stories, and insight the into world's environmental dilemmas. I also had no idea of the complex ways in which Nabokov interwove butterflies and their images and symbols into his novels.
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By A Customer on November 18, 1999
Format: Hardcover
What is intriguing about this book is that it has taken an entire volume of previously untapped material-- Nabokov's scientific work and the stories of and from the scientists who have studied and completed Nabokov's pioneering work in science and woven an entirely new story about a personage who might have been considered previously well-known. Who would have known this story was around? It reminds of Sobel's Galileo's Daughter which also uses the same tack-- takes the correspondence with his daughter, previously untapped, and weaves a whole new story about Galileo! The authors of Nabokov's Blues have extra luck in that, since they are demonstrating for the first time Nabokov's acumen in two very different fields, science and literature, they can take the opportunity to interweave these two worlds, which they do in a fascinating and intriguing way. What is so compelling about this book is that its story has just not been told before. Just when you thought you knew something about Nabokov, here comes his science! and, with gusto. A great book.
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Format: Hardcover
Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. Kurt Johnson, Steve Coates. Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1999. Pp 372 $27.00
In his Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America Alexander Klots wrote of the genus Lycaeides that "the recent work of Nabokov has entirely rearranged the classification of this genus." The response of Vladimir Nabokov, the acclaimed author of Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, was "That's real fame. That means more than anything a literary critic might say."
Nabokov was born in April 1899 and his reputation as a leading literary figure of the century he was almost born in seems secure; the Random House Modern Library proclaimed Lolita the fourth greatest novel of the century and the memoir Speak, Memory, the eighth greatest work of non-fiction, thus Nabokov was the only author to feature in the top ten of both lists. It is well known that Nabokov had a strong interest in lepidoptery. Often however it is dismissed as mere dilettantism, or seen by academics and critics as a source of Freudian symbolism. Nabokov himself detested such phenomena as the crass observation that "insect" and "incest" are anagrams, and attacked "the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols." Full-time lepidopterists were either ignorant of Nabokov's work or regarded it as amateur dabblings; perhaps they also felt resentment at this part-timer who was nevertheless dubbed "the most famous lepidopterist in the world."
Kurt Johnson is a lepidopterist associated with the Florida State Collection of Arthropods, while Steve Coates is an editor at The New York Times.
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