This year, I’ve been in pursuit of new horizons, reading wise. I’ve read new genres, challenged myself to broaden my knowledge of authors, and developed and deepened my existing love for fairytales, among other things. My blog has led me to some wonderful people, books and experiences so far, and my two greatest reading experiences of 2011 so far have been, weirdly, about Iran.
The first was Persepolis, which blew me away (read my review if you want to see somebody get very excited about a graphic novel. I’ve since bought and watched the film, and adored that, too), and Reading Lolita in Tehran had a similar vibe. Books are a big feature in Persepolis; they are Marjane Satrapi’s education and escape, as they are here. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir. Written by a literature professor, and book devotee, it is the story of the struggle of women, and of culture – literature in particular – under the Islamic government after the Iranian Revolution. The novel is divided into four parts: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen, and portrays the journey of Azar Nafisi and many of her various students, through works of literature. Nafisi is very clever in the way that she uses the literature to reflect what is happening in Iran, or with the women, her students. Starting with Lolita, she says;
“To reinvent her, Humbert must take Lolita from her own real history, and replace it with his own, turning Lolita into a reincarnation” p36
This reincarnation is a direct reference to the way that women were being ‘reinvented’ under the Islamic Regime – forced to wear the veil, arrested for the tiniest things, abused by men on the slightest provocation. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a novel about fear; and not fear as many of us know it, but real, proper terror that you could be executed for daring to protest. It is also a novel about hope.
For me, it was a feminist novel in the very best sense. Nafisi was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil, and throughout the book, she simultaneously laments the loss of her students’ physical identities, while highlighting the things which make them so individual. With ‘her girls’, she talks about many books, but the ones she highlights in the novel (Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride & Prejudice), have an array of very strong female characters. The classes that Nafisi teaches throughout the novel are all joyously free in comparison to extreme repression going on around them, whether they are the earliest ones, at the University of Tehran, or the far later, secret meetings at her house, where students read from Xeroxed copies of books, because the bookshops had been raided and closed down. In every class, there is a student who feels the Western literature Nafisi is teaching is ‘immoral’ and should be banned, and in every class, Nafisi stands up for her books. There is not only a love of literature, but a total immersion of the self in literature throughout the novel, which amazed me. We all talk about literature and reading as a form of escapism, but for these women it literally was. For them, the books, the classes, the secret meetings, provided them with a way to relate, and a way to remove themselves from the lives the regime forces them to live, and place themselves in a world where they could have the lives that they wanted. Reading Lolita in Tehran was the extreme of the best the experience of reading can provide:
“This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing” p 111
Nafisi’s attitude towards books reminded me of myself. At one point, she walks past a bookstore and goes in, on a whim that it won’t be there much longer. She gathers up armfuls of books to buy, and there’s a feeling of urgency, like she wants to protect the books – take them home and keep them safe – which is exactly how I feel when I’m out on a book splurge, except that she had a reason to feel that way, and I don’t. For people who really, truly love books though, I think that the idea of them not being around or readily available, let alone being banned, is enough to induce serious panic. Nafisi vocalises the way that I’ve felt about books for a long while. When you read a novel, you bury yourself in it, get passionate about it, and discuss characters as if they were real. You live it along with the characters. Reading allows you to have many lives at the same time, to be many places at once, to literally be wherever, whoever, whatever you want to be.
I wonder if people who write memoirs based around books do so because their lives hinge around what they read. I could probably sum up most of my major life events by what I was reading at the time – my childhood is Enid Blyton, the Chalet School, E. Nesbitt, and my Dad’s made up stories, early adolescence was The Babysitters Club, a lot of Lois Lowry, Paula Danziger, and Judy Blume, later teenage years filled with Douglas Adams, Tolkien, The Catcher in the Rye, I Capture the Castle, and many many readings of Alex Garland’s The Beach. Every desperate situation that I’ve felt I couldn’t get through and turned to an old friend for comfort, comfort has been found in the arms of the series starting with Little Women. I could go on, and I’m sure many of you could do the same.
For those of us who are readers, what is it that we hope to get from our study of books? Because whatever genre you read, in whatever way you read it, reading is study. Although there may be many people in the world who can read a book and simply enjoy it, without thinking about it much, I know that many of us bloggers out here, to name just one group, will read a book, and think about it, make notes on it, and often get out a pencil and underline things, put rings around them, emphasize in some way the points which stand out to us – the ones that are important, that we want to make sense of, or that are just so on the money that we can’t believe they were written by another person and haven’t come straight out of our own heads.
“The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes” p94
Reading Lolita in Tehran made me think about many things, and it made me think about things which were uncomfortable for me, and I feel refreshed for it.
I loved this book. It was everything that I want a book to be – informative, riveting, about a place I’ve never been to and know nothing about, and packed full of amazingly strong women, and engrossing, immersive books. It made me want to read and think and discuss things. After I’d finished it, I wanted to write and be impassioned and to change the world. As reality will probably prevent me from doing that, I’m spreading the love and hoping someone else will get inspired too!
I don’t do giveaways very often, but I have some serious major love for this book, so if you’d like me to send you a brand new free copy, please leave your email address in a comment below, and either the title of a book that’s inspired you, or a link to something awesome that has! I’ll pick a winner at the end of the week! :-)