Azar Nafisi, born and raised in Iran, wrote the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran. Her new book is The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books. It deserves to be as widely read as Reading Lolita.
Nafisi, born in 1955, has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Oklahoma (Norman), and taught English literature for 18 years in Iran. She and her family left Iran after the revolution, and she is now a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. She became an American citizen in 2008.
Because she is (was?) an outsider, she brings a interesting perspective to American literature and culture. She makes connections/associations that someone born in the culture is liable to miss, but that are obvious once someone like Nafisi points them out. For example, "I have often wondered whether there is a correlation between the growing lack of respect for ideas and the imagination and the growing gap between rich and poor in America, reflected not just in the gulf between the salaries of CEOs and their employees but also in the high cost of education, the incredible divide between private and public schools that makes all fine speeches by our policy makers—most of whom send their children to private schools anyway, just as they enjoy the benefits and perks of their jobs as servants of the people—all the more insidious and insincere."
In The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi discusses three novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the works of James Baldwin. Throughout, she connects the books to her own life—the best friend who, pregnant, had to escape from Iran by horseback, the art history student who argued for a Southern consciousness, and more. Her comments and insights are thoughtful and thought-provoking. She argues, for example, that Tom Sawyer is the real villain in Huckleberry Finn. She also points out that "In fiction, every treachery and setback appears to serve some end: the characters learn and grow and come into their own. In life, it is not always clear that the hijacking of our plans is quite so provident or benign." She wonders about the effort to sanitize, to make our books (our patrimony) inoffensive . . . and discusses Twain's use of the n-word (which is so toxic I'm not going to risk spelling it out).
In her discussion of Babbitt, she points out that Sinclair Lewis's genius "was in capturing the spirit of modern advertising when it had not yet come to dominate the American landscape and define the soul of the nation." George Babbitt is a prime example of consumerus americanus, one who is "both attracted to the joys of freedom and frightened by its perils, for freedom does have many perils," and the best way to confront these threats "is not to avoid being free but to cultivate independence of thought . . . "
And while it is tempting to continue picking nuggets from this fascinating book, I am going to stop with one more: "Time and again, I have wondered if our current assault on literature, which so many like to think of as useless and irrelevant, is not a reflection of the desire to remove from the equation anything that it painful or distasteful to us, anything that does not fit our norms or make life easy and fall within our sphere of power and control. In one sense, to deny literature is to deny pain and the dilemma that is called life."
If you have never read Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or James Baldwin, The Republic of Imagination is a useful introduction to the authors and the works. If you have read them, Nafisi's insights and observations are likely to send you back to read them once again—as they did me.