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Of Nabokov And Butterflies

Sometimes we forget that authors are normal people just like us. They have likes and dislikes that extend well beyond their writing in the same way we do.

Richard Wright was into Haiku. Jonathan Franzen is an avid bird watcher. Stephen King is a Boston Red Sox fanatic.

But this side interest/hobby might be the most unusual: Vladimir Nabokov was an amateur lepidopterist.

A what? A lepidopterist is someone who is interested in butterflies, and Nabokov had a heavy interest in butterflies.

This story in the Hindustan Times last week describes how Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When Nabokov was 8, he even took a butterfly to his father’s jail cell after he was imprisoned for his political views in Russia.

According to an article in The New York Times, Nabokov would have become a full-time lepidopterist if his family had not gone into exile during the Russian Revolution in 1919.

Nabokov’s expertise on butterflies eventually led to a theory that became widely accepted in the lepidopterist community (yes, there is such a thing). Here’s how the article explains it:

It was in 1945 that he made a bold and detailed hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as “The Common Blue” (Polyommatus icarus), a small butterfly in the Lycaenidae family. According to the NYT, “He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of (five) waves (each giving rise to a separate group).” He came up with this theory just by looking through a microscope and the wisdom of years of devotion and passion in collecting butterflies as an amateur.

During Nabokov’s lifetime, his views on insects and creatures were not held in high esteem in scientific quarters. He was even mocked for being able to ‘describe them well’, but lacking the scientific know-how. Much later, a group of scientists applying ‘gene-sequencing technology’ to his hypothesis discovered Nabokov was, in fact, “absolutely right”.

Also, interestingly, the article says there’s an edition of Lolita floating around somewhere with an inscription from Nabokov to Graham Green (The Power and the Glory author). Under the inscription is a drawing of a green butterfly with the notation “green swallowtail dancing waist high.”

So there you go. Vladimir Nabokov was an expert in butterflies–so much so that he created a theory that changed the way lepidopterists view butterflies.

Famous author. Famous lepidopterist. What are we doing with our lives?

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18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mags #

    Famous author. Famous lepidopterist. What are we doing with our lives? <— That's a very good question.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 29, 2013
    • All very tongue in cheek of course! Like I said below, I’m not really sure exactly what a lepidopterist contributes to society, but I’m sure it’s something.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 29, 2013
  2. This was extremely interesting! My writing is a passion, my love of books is my addiction and my hobby is…well, honestly, I don’t have a hobby. Taking care of my SO and spending my spare time chasing my passion and feeding my addiction leaves little time for hobbies. But, I have a full life, so no complaints!

    Liked by 1 person

    January 29, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on Self Publishing.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 29, 2013
  4. Oh, the LAST thing I need a the beginning of the week is to compare myself to Nabakov!

    What am I doing with my life? The best I can. Last week, a former student came to find me on campus to let me know that he’d just gotten an A on a 12-page paper, and that he knew he could do it because he remembered all I’d taught him in remedial writing and then freshman comp. “It really stuck and it’s helped me so much every time I have to write something. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

    So that’s something I’ve got that maybe Nabokov didn’t 🙂

    But I don’t know anything about butterflies.

    Actually, this reminds me of Michael Ventris, who was an architect by training and trade, but who – as a hobby – became the person to finally decode Linear B. Both were very accomplished, even ground-breaking, in two completely separate fields.

    Where would we be without people like these?

    Liked by 1 person

    January 29, 2013
    • sylviemarieheroux #

      I like your story about your student. I say, let’s make a difference in people’s life one at a time. Could be writing, teaching, helping out, reaching out… Who knows what impact it’ll have. If it gets recognized by others, good. If it leads to great things, even better. But no matter, let’s do something we’re proud of and that is congruent with what we believe in.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 29, 2013
    • Absolutely. That last line was mostly tongue-in-cheek. Honestly, I’ll take the contributions that a teacher makes any day over a lepidopterist. Though I’m not much of a science guy.

      Like

      January 29, 2013
  5. I am reading your blog. HA!

    Liked by 1 person

    January 29, 2013
  6. Yes, the man was a genius. The world is littered with over-achievers. Don’t let your fear of recycling keep you from picking up their trash. Hmmm. Sometimes after I write something, I wonder what it means.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 29, 2013
  7. Don’t let your fear of recycling keep you from picking up their trash. — Deep.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 29, 2013
    • PMD: I checked out your blog and discovered that you are the ideal reader for and recycler of that last comment. Serendipity strikes again.

      Liked by 1 person

      January 30, 2013
  8. “authors are normal people just like us”

    I’m not sure about you, but I have some trouble with this comparison!

    Liked by 1 person

    January 29, 2013
  9. Reblogged this on weaklingwarrior.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 30, 2013
  10. What a fascinating fact!

    Liked by 1 person

    January 30, 2013
  11. This is a very interesting post. It is amazing when you can find even deeper levels of understanding of authors. Perhaps this knowledge will inform my subsequent readings.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 3, 2013
  12. Wanted to hi, and wish you and your family all the best for the Christmas season.

    Like

    December 3, 2013

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