Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi

I read this book back in 2003 after it first came out. I picked it up again this week after learning that several of the high school kids I work with were reading it for school. In many ways this seems like the perfect book for me - it is a book about women in Tehran, reading classic literature (Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen) in a women's book group led by Nafisi, a literature professor. So much of the idea of it reminded me of my time in college - studying literature and feminist theory and struggling to make the texts relevant to my existence. I was quite interested in the perspective of these young women, living under the veil, and reading books that were widely banned in their country. I wanted to hear more of their discussions and how they related the books to their own lives, and their hope for the lives they would one day be able to live. To contrast my own past reading of these books at an extremely liberal university with that of these women who were taught never to question their higher authority was frustrating, but also liberating. Outside of the first and last chapter, however, there is little focus on the actual book group and the discussion of the literature. Nafisi turns the book into more of a memoir (which is how it is billed) of her own life - her time in American, her marriages, her own struggle to teach her students to think for themselves in an country that severely punished such action. The book group becomes more of a vehicle for Nafisi to explore Iran's history and the role of literature in that world, as opposed to the focus of the narrative. This is fine, and makes for an interesting read, but not necessarily the book I wanted to read. As with most books about reading, I think it helps to have read and/or studied the authors that Nafisi discusses - though she chooses authors who are popular enough such that I suppose most readers will at least be familiar with the works through basic cultural literacy even if they haven't read them on their own. And, if they haven't been read, it makes for an even more interesting read, I might think - as Nafisi is repeatedly discussing censors who judge and discard books without having actually read them - and to do the same thing with these works when seen through Nafisi's eyes is in itself an interesting proposition. I do find this book fascinating because it works on so many levels -and I think I could probably read it again in another five years and find something completely different to like about it all over again.

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