I have been thinking a lot about reading these days: reading as escape, reading for information, reading as an act of resistance. It’s my interest in reading as resistance that led me to this book. I have picked this book up in bookstores at least a dozen times over the last decade, only to put it back down. Which I am now grateful that I did because I needed to read this book –and read it as a first time reader– right now.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is the story of Professor Azar Nafisi’s book club, where she invited seven of her female former university students to join a weekly reading group at her house where they would discuss forbidden works of Western literature. There are four sections to this memoir: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen. Lolita and Austen serve as bookends and tell the story of the book club, while the Gatsby and James sections go into Nafisi’s academic career and how her students responded to Western literature in different political climates. Reading Lolita in Tehran praises how literature teaches empathy, which the author would likely say has more value than any moral lessons embedded in the text, and emphasizes the importance of imagination.
In addition to being about literature and personal liberty, Reading Lolita in Tehran is about the lives of women and about female friendships. The young women in the class range in age from the late teens to early thirties. Some are liberal, while others are more religious and traditional. Some have had multiple marriages while others have never had a boyfriend. Some of them have been imprisoned. All of them are well-educated, and each is independent in her own way. They are alike in their love of literature and in that all of them are restricted by the laws and culture of Iran.
As I read this, I kept thinking of current events. On some level, this is not quite fair to what the people of Iran went through in the eighties and nineties. Nafisi had friends and family who were executed during this time, and she kept a nightly vigil outside her small children’s bedrooms while bombs fell on Tehran. Nafisi had to make choices between her career and her personal liberty. Meanwhile I am irritated by the people who are currently in power and concerned about what will happen to the rights of women and minorities over the next few years. So I am not suggesting the two situations are the same, especially on the level of severity, but I think lessons can be learned from Iran in how political climates can change so dramatically and how everyday people both contribute to this and are victimized by it.
I hope that in ten years time, I will look back at my current blog posts lamenting certain current events and find my posts to be melodramatic and ridiculous. I hope the current national environment is nothing more than a normal step backyard that will soon be remedied by moving two steps forward. I hope the checks and balances are more effective than I think and the American people less apathetic. But it may not be. Reading Lolita in Tehran does show that progressive changes can be reversed. Nafisi writes of being young in a progressive environment, only to have her daughter be born into an environment where women’s rights had moved back to what they had been in her grandmother’s youth when girls could be brides at age nine and courts ruled in favor of domestic abusers.
It could have been a depressing book, but it is not. It is a celebration of life, love, friendship, and literature. This book left me grateful to be a reader and grateful to Professor Nafisi for sharing her stories and her life with us readers. I wanted to be part of her book club, eating oranges and pastries and drinking tea out of beautiful glassware, while talking about literature and life with these women. And I am left with an urge to read and/or re-read the books mentioned in this memoir, looking at them with a new perspective.
FCC Notice: I read a library copy.
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