Good books make a reader think. Great books make a reader feel. But the best books do both, and do them well.
Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books belongs decidedly in the third group. It forces the reader to reexamine her critical understanding of modern literary works, at the same time calls up conflicting emotions: horror and fascination, hope and despair, outrage and pleasure. In it the author takes readers through 18 years of oppression in Iran, her homeland, and portrays the thrill of revolution, the cruelty of war, and the nuances of courage through her life's great passion: literature.
The memoir revolves around the special Thursday classes Nafisi holds in her home with seven of her best students after she resigns from her last teaching post in 1995. The class is a sanctuary for all of them, a place where they can remove their chadors and scarves, symbols of their Islamic government's repression; and a space where they can think and talk freely about their beloved Western novels, which have been banned by the regime.
From that starting point, Nafisi is able to recreate for readers life under the Islamic Republic of Iran, run by a government that pushed its people into the depths of religious fundamentalism. Nafisi describes the Iranian revolution of 1980 and the war with the Iraq, and how, as the Ayatollah Khomeini exercised a firmer - and at the same time more desperate - hold on the country, its citizens' lives became increasingly colored in black and white choices. Either one was with the regime and obeyed their every command, said Nafisi, or one was against it, and deserved torture and death.
Using her favorite novels - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daisy Miller by Henry James, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and of course, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita - Nafisi creates parallels between the worlds and characters in fiction, and the world and characters she and her girls were actually a part of. She discusses maintaining one's integrity in the face of the worst opposition as a worthy - though terribly difficult - form of rebellion. She recounts discourses, makes critical points about characters, and takes readers through brilliant analyses of modern classics. It makes readers want to return to their own battered copies of those familiar titles and read them again with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
All the while Nafisi weaves in her own and her students' personalities, voices, and histories, giving the memoir the quality of fiction. Readers often have to remind themselves that these people do exist, or once existed, and that those events did occur. It's a magical ride through a world that is shocking and almost unimaginable to anyone who has lived with basic freedoms all their life. The only drawback, if it could even be called that, is the book is not for light reading, and especially not for those new to English literature and criticism. A suggestion: read a few of the titles mentioned above before delving into Reading Lolita.
More than any other emotion, Nafisi asks empathy of her readers. She declares that the worst villains in any great work of fiction are those who lack the ability to understand others, to empathize with their protagonists and those around them. That is precisely what Nafisi's own work brings out: her readers are pressed to feel not just pity but compassion for Nafisi's students, for their plight, for all Iran - and for every single person who has had to suffer in a similar way. It's a work that defies time - already 10 years have passed since its first publication - and will remain relevant as long as people read literature and resist oppression.
Best Quote (and there are many):
A novel... 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 empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience.