Saturday, December 23, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Someone on an email list was asking about this book, and I dug around for my review that I wrote just over two years ago for the subscription library I belong to. As long as I was sending it to that list, I decided to post it here as well.

Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Tecwil

Part political memoir, part literary criticism, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a wonderful book. It celebrates the joy and usefulness of reading, and the unexpected pleasures of reading a book in a wildly different context from the one in which it was written. Nafisi, now a professor at Johns Hopkins, taught English literature in Tehran, first at several universities and later in her own home after she was fired for refusing to wear the veil. She mixes her observations about life in Iran under increasingly rigid and absurd conditions with commentary on the novels she reads and teaches.

Sometimes her reading is escape - in a particularly vivid scene, she reads through bombings during the Iran-Iraq War. Often the books contrast with or comment on Iranian reality. About Lolita, Nafisi notes, "this child, had she lived in the Islamic Republic, would have been long ripe for marriage to men older than Humbert." She points out that Jane Austen and Henry James both lived during wartime, and chose different ways of dealing with that - or not - in their writing. When some of Nafisi's students find Fitzgerald offensive to Islam, she stages a mock trial of The Great Gatsby.

The book touches on many issues. Censorship, obviously. Turning life into stories and how that helps us survive; the image of Scheherazade is particularly appropriate. How you decide whether, or when, to leave a country you love. Even the definition of home - is it rooted, or is it portable? I doubt I am the only library member who finds many of these topics highly relevant.

I will be paying this book the ultimate compliment: buying my own copy!


Bridget said...

I wasn't particularly interested in that book. I started reading it, but found it quite boring actually. I wonder if it depends on the circumstances you're in at the time you read it. What do you think?

Ruth said...

Hey Bridget,

No doubt. Try it again another time.