Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 343 pages, 2003

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: A buzz book.

Synopsis: In Reading Lolita, Nafisi chronicles her life in Iran as a university professor during a time of war and repression. In order to have a chance to speak more freely about English literature, she starts up a small discussion group with seven of her female students, which quickly moves from books to a more personal look at how reading affects them and their lives in an atmosphere where their thoughts must be hidden from the public eye.

Why you should read this book: It’s easy to see why this book is a popular choice for book clubs, as the possiblities for discussion are endless, no matter what your views may be. The ideal of standing up for a world without censorship suddenly seems much more momentous when lives are at stake for expressing such an opinion. Nafisi showing the reactions in her class is mind-boggling, from the arguements of a radical Islamist about the immorality in the novels Nafisi chooses to teach, to the hushed assurances of students during breaks that they support her even if they’re too afraid to speak out during class. Nafisi shows a little sympathy to the reader’s level of alertness while perusing such heavy subject matter by keeping most chapters in the 2-8 page range. There’s a lot to ponder in this one long after you’ve turned the last page because no one opinion seems to have the definitive answer.

Why you should avoid this book: Nafisi is the type of feminist that seems insulted by the idea of a woman being happy in a ‘traditionial’ lifestyle. She looks down at her students who are considering marriage, convinced that will be the end of them and all of their academic aspirations, even though Nafisi herself is married with children – does she think she’s the only woman on earth that can handle this dual role? This smug and elitist attitude is abrasive in parts of the book. War and literary theory are heavy enough subjects separately, so don’t be surprised if you have to read this book slowly in order to absorb everything – and even then, you might find some of it to be a bit much. Beware that books by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen have plot-spoilers in Reading Lolita in Tehran, ranging from mild (characters’ personality traits) to extreme (a rough walk-through of the plot, including the ending).

Opening paragraph:

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women – to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction. One persistant male student, although barred from our class, insisted on his rights. So he, Nima, read the assigned material, and on special days he would come to my house to talk about the books we were reading.

Fabulous quotes:

In retrospect it appears strange to me only now, as I write about it, that as I was standing there in that classroom talking about the American dream, we could hear from outside, beneath the window, the loudspeakers broadcasting songs whose refrain was “Marg bar Amrika! – “Death to America!”
A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to emphathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.

‘Well, first of all, it’s not all your fault. None of us can live in and survive this fantasy world – we all need to create a paradise to escape into. Besides,’ he said, ‘there is something you can do about it.’
‘There is?’ I said eagerly, still dejected and dying for once to be told what to do. ‘Yes, there is, and you are in fact doing it in this class, if you don’t spoil it. Do what all poets do with their philosopher-kings. You don’t need to create a parallel fantasy of the West. Give them the best of what that other world can offer: give them pure fiction – give them back their imagination!’ he ended triumphantly, and looked at me as if he expected hurrahs and the clapping of hands for his wise advice.

Also recommended: The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston; The New Year by Pearl S. Buck; Book Lust by Nancy Pearl.

Also by this author: Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels.

Author’s website: Dialogue Project

Fun tidbit: Nafisi started the Dialogue Project to promote democracy and human rights within Muslim communities.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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