The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books

The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books

by Azar Nafisi

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Overview

The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books by Azar Nafisi

A New York Times bestseller

The author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran returns with the next chapter of her life in books—a passionate and deeply moving hymn to America

 
Ten years ago, Azar Nafisi electrified readers with her multimillion-copy bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, which told the story of how, against the backdrop of morality squads and executions, she taught The Great Gatsby and other classics of English and American literature to her eager students in Iran. In this electrifying follow-up, she argues that fiction is just as threatened—and just as invaluable—in America today.

Blending memoir and polemic with close readings of her favorite novels, she describes the unexpected journey that led her to become an American citizen after first dreaming of America as a young girl in Tehran and coming to know the country through its fiction. She urges us to rediscover the America of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and challenges us to be truer to the words and spirit of the Founding Fathers, who understood that their democratic experiment would never thrive or survive unless they could foster a democratic imagination. Nafisi invites committed readers everywhere to join her as citizens of what she calls the Republic of Imagination, a country with no borders and few restrictions, where the only passport to entry is a free mind and a willingness to dream.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143127789
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 227,115
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Azar Nafisi is the author of two New York Times–bestselling memoirs, Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I’ve Been Silent About. A passionate advocate of books and reading, she speaks to packed audiences around the world about the importance of nurturing a democratic imagination. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Hometown:

Potomac, Maryland

Place of Birth:

Tehran, Iran

Education:

M.A., Ph.D., Oklahoma University, 1979

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

A few years ago I was in Seattle signing books at a marvelous independent bookstore called Elliott Bay when I noticed a young man standing by the table, watching me. When the line had dwindled, he finally addressed me. He said he was passing through Seattle, visiting a friend, and he wanted me to know he had lived in Iran until recently. “It’s useless,” he said, “your talk about books. These people are different from us—they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to xerox hundreds of pages of books like Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”

Before I had time to think of a response, he went on to tell me about the first time he had been arrested, late at night during one of the usual random car searches by the revolutionary militia. He had been taken into custody with his two friends, more for their insolence than for the contraband tapes found in the car. They were kept for forty-eight hours and then released without explanation, after being fined and flogged. There was no denying that a normal day in the life of a young Iranian is very different from that of most young Americans.

I had heard such stories many times before, but there was something unusual about this young man. He spoke in a casual tone that made what he said all the more poignant, as if he were trying to negate the event by describing it in a nonchalant manner. He said that during the floggings, it was not just the pain but the humiliation that had made him feel for a few moments as if he were leaving his body and becoming a ghost, watching himself being flogged from a distance. “It made it easier,” he added, “as a ghost.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “It was a good survival technique.”

“It still is,” he said, with his knowing smile.

By now there was a line again, patiently and politely waiting, and I made a silly remark to the effect that perhaps America was a land of ghosts anyway. He did not react to that. Instead he handed me a Post-it note and said, “I don’t have a book. This is for a friend.”

I signed my name on that orange Post-it and gingerly handed him my card. “Let’s be in touch,” I said. He took both the Post-it and the card and of course he never did get in touch. But I never lost track of him completely, because that young man, with his serene smile and his words, revisits me in strange places and seemingly unrelated encounters. He has stayed with me partly because I felt then, as I do now, that I had disappointed him—something was expected of me that was not fulfilled. When I realized he was going to haunt me for the foreseeable future, I decided to give him a name: Ramin, in honor of another young man I had known in Iran who told me about a similar experience. All these ghosts—how do we fulfill our responsibilities toward them?

Thinking over what Ramin had said, I found it intriguing that he had suggested not that Americans did not understand our books but that they didn’t understand their own. In an oblique way, he had made it seem as if Western literature belonged more to the hankering souls of the Islamic Republic of Iran than to the inhabitants of the land that had given birth to them. How could this be? And yet it is true that people who brave censorship, jail and torture to gain access to books or music or movies or works of art tend to hold the whole enterprise in an entirely different light.

“These people,” he had said with his inscrutable smile, “are different from us. They don’t care about books and such things.” Every once in a while, after a talk, during a book signing or over coffee with an old friend, this point will come up, usually as a question: “Don’t you think that literature and books were so important in Iran because there was so much repression there? And don’t you think that in a democracy there is no such urgent need for them?”

My impulse now, as then, is to disagree. The majority of people in this country who haunt bookstores, go to readings and book festivals or simply read in the privacy of their homes are not traumatized exiles. Many have seldom left their hometown or state, but does this mean that they do not dream, that they have no fears, that they don’t feel pain and anguish and yearn for a life of meaning? Stories are not mere flights of fantasy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it. Primo Levi once said, “I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind.” Reading is a private act, but it joins us across continents and time.

But perhaps there is another, more personal reason for my disagreement with Ramin: I cannot imagine myself feeling at home in a place that is indifferent to what has become my true home, a land with no borders and few restrictions, which I have taken to calling “the Republic of Imagination.” I think of it as Nabokov’s “somehow, somewhere” or Alice’s backyard, a world that runs parallel to the real one, whose occupants need no passport or documentation. The only requirements for entry are an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane.

• • •

Long before I made America my home, I inhabited its fiction, its poetry, its music and films. My first fictional journey to America took place when I was about seven, when my English tutor in Tehran introduced me to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Our main text was a book with simple stories about a pair of American siblings, predictably a girl and a boy. One peculiar feature of these two fiercely clean and well-groomed urchins was that no matter what happened to them, their expressions were fixed in a perpetual smile. I knew their names (was it Jack and Jill? Dick and Jane?), their last names (the Smiths? the Joneses? the Partridges?), where they lived, their daily routine, their school. None of these small and essential details have stayed with me. There was little in their world that made me want to know these smiling, immaculately groomed children any better. The only thing I remember about that book, the one thing that was slightly interesting, was its cover: gritty to the touch, with an image of the two siblings foregrounded on a dark green background.

Near the end of each session, my tutor would close our exercise book and make her way to the kitchen, from which she would emerge with a glass of cherry sherbet and a worn copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She read only a few pages each time, keeping me in suspense, impatient for our next meeting. Sometimes she would tell me stories from the book or have me read a short passage. I was mesmerized by the orphan Dorothy, who lived in the middle of a flat gray landscape somewhere in the middle of nowhere with her dour and hardworking aunt and uncle and whose only cheerful companion was her dog, Toto. What would happen to her when a cyclone lifted her up with her house, with Toto trapped inside, and landed them in a magical place called Oz? Like millions of children, I impatiently followed Dorothy and her growing group of friends in search of the mighty Wizard of Oz, the only person who could give the Scarecrow a mind, the Tin Man a heart and the Lion courage, and make possible Dorothy’s journey home.

Had I been able to formulate my first impressions of the United States, I might have said that there was a place in America called Kansas, where people could find a magic land at the heart of a cyclone. Because that was the first time I had heard the word “cyclone,” I can honestly say that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz taught me both its real and imagined meanings. Kansas and Omaha were soon followed by a river called Mississippi and many more cities, rivers, forests, lakes and people—the orderly suburban households of Nancy Drew, the frontier towns of Little House on the Prairie and stormy plantations of Gone with the Wind, the Kentucky farm of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the dusty, sultry southern streets of To Kill a Mockingbird, where justice was as embattled a notion as it would soon be in Tehran. Later, these were joined by Faulkner’s Mississippi, Fitzgerald’s St. Paul, Edith Wharton’s New York and then Richard Wright’s and Ralph Ellison’s very different New York, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles and the southern towns of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. Even now I feel there are so many geographical and fictional terrains left to discover. Perhaps this was the main reason why I could not agree with Ramin: America, to my mind, cannot be separated from its fiction.

When they were young my parents were not wealthy, but all through their lives the one thing they never hesitated to give my brother and me was books. They would entrust friends who traveled abroad with long lists of titles they couldn’t find for us in Tehran. As I grew up and wanted the things my friends had, my father would tell me time and again in different ways that I should not focus on things. Possessions, he would say, can’t be relied on—they’re easier to lose than to obtain. You should value what you can carry with you until the day you die.

One of the first books my father brought home for me to read in English was Tom and Jerry. I still remember when he gave me The Little Prince and Charlotte’s Web, which taught me that something as fragile and forgettable as a spider’s web could offer up a hidden universe. When I first read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I was intrigued by Tom’s seductive charm but did not really like him—maybe his bag was too full of tricks. In time, books and the world of the imagination they unlocked would become the portable possessions my father had hoped I would always carry with me.

Every Thursday evening, he would take me to a movie house in the fun part of town and I looked forward to our private time together all week. I remember walking hand in hand with him down Naderi Avenue, itself like a scene in an impressionist movie, with its chaotic shops selling nuts, spices, coffee, pirashki and ice cream. Alongside Iranian films, we saw ones starring Ismail Yasin, Fernandel, Norman Wisdom and Vittorio De Sica and the romantic dramas of the Indian superstars Raj Kapoor and Nargis. And, of course, we saw American films: Spartacus and Ivanhoe, Mogambo, Laurel and Hardy, South Pacific and one of my favorites, Danny Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen. I was not sure what to make of American musicals, where characters suddenly started gyrating in the middle of a meal or while walking down the street, as if overtaken by a mischievous genie, bursting into song only to calm down the next minute and resume eating or talking or kissing. Ever since, I have thought of America as a land of song and dance. From an early age I nurtured an idea of America that I believed in even if I knew that its reality, like any reality, was certain to fall short in some way and disappoint.

My father translated the tales of La Fontaine for my brother and me, doing all of the drawings himself, and wrote simplified versions of the classic Persian poets Ferdowsi and Nezami. More than anything when I think of him, this is what I remember: his sharing of his time and pleasure with me, as if I were his equal, his companion and co-consipirator. There was no moral lesson to be drawn; it was an act of love, but also of respect and trust.

• • •

Eleven years have now passed since I met Ramin at that bookstore in Seattle, and since then I have traveled thousands of miles over thirty-two states, conversing mainly about the subject he and I talked about that day. And he did have a point. Between my first book tour, in 2003, and the next one, in 2009, many of the places I visited had undergone a significant transformation or vanished: Cody’s in Berkeley, seven branch libraries in Philadelphia, twelve of the fourteen bookstores in Harvard Square, Harry W. Schwartz in Milwaukee and, in my own hometown of Washington, D.C., Olsson’s and Chapters. At first it was the independent bookstores, then came the bigger chains: Borders (I wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran at the Borders on Eighteenth and L, now a Nordstrom Rack) and, more recently, the Barnes & Noble in Georgetown, replaced by a cavernous Nike store—and the list goes on.

It is not just bookstores and libraries that are disappearing but museums, theaters, performing arts centers, art and music schools—all those places where I felt at home have joined the list of endangered species. The San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and my own hometown paper, The Washington Post, have all closed their weekend book review sections, leaving books orphaned and stranded, poor cousins to television and the movies. In a sign of the times, the Bloomberg News website recently transferred its book coverage to the Luxury section, alongside yachts, sports clubs and wine, as if to signal that books are an idle indulgence of the super-rich. But if there is one thing that should not be denied to anyone rich or poor it is the opportunity to dream.

Long before that extremely cold, sunny morning in December 2008 when I took a loyalty oath at an Immigration Services office in Fairfax, Virginia, and finally became an American citizen, I had often asked myself, What transforms a country from a place you simply live in or use as a refuge into a home? At what point do “they” become “us?” When you choose to call a place home, you no longer treat it with the episodic curiosity of a guest or a visitor. You are concerned with the good and the bad. Its shortcomings are no longer merely topics of conversation. You wonder, Why are things this way and not another? You want to improve the place, to change it, to make your complaints known. And I had done enough complaining by then to know it was time I became an American citizen.

When the founding fathers conceived of this new nation, they understood that the education of its citizens would be essential to the health of their democratic enterprise. Knowledge was not just a luxury; it was essential. In those days, men who worked for a living were not thought to be fit for public life and a liberal arts education was essential for anyone aspiring to join the political class of the new republic. Over time, politics became a more contentious enterprise, and a new political class was born that had little time for cultivated gentleman farmers who read Cicero and Tacitus for pleasure. Of course, the founding fathers’ hope was that one day all Americans, regardless of their wealth or station, would have an opportunity to read Tacitus and Cicero. The point of their new democracy was not just to vote but to make accessible to most citizens what had until then been enjoyed by only a few. Museums, libraries and schools were built to further this democratic ideal. Jefferson, who spent his life collecting books, many of which he donated to the Library of Congress, boasted that America was the only country whose farmers read Homer. “A native of America who cannot read or write,” said John Adams, “is as rare an appearance . . . as a Comet or an Earthquake.”

I have often wondered whether there is a correlation between the growing lack of respect for ideas and the imagination and the increasing 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 of the 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. Those who can afford private schooling need not worry about their children being deprived of art, music and literature in the classroom: they are more sheltered, for now, from the doctrine of efficiency that has been radically refashioning the public school curriculum.

American students, we are told, are falling behind in reading and math; on test after test, they score below most European students (at the level of Lithuania), and the solution, rather than seeking to engage their curiosity, has been testing and more testing—a dry and brittle method that produces lackluster results. And so resources are pulled from the “soft” fields that are not being tested. Music teachers are being fired or not replaced; art classes are quietly dropped from the curriculum; history is simplified and moralized, with little expectation that any facts will be learned or retained; and instead of reading short stories, poems and novels, students are invited to read train schedules and EPA reports whose jargon could put even the most committed environmentalist to sleep.

The crisis besetting America is not just an economic or political crisis; something deeper is wreaking havoc across the land, a mercenary and utilitarian attitude that demonstrates little empathy for people’s actual well-being, that dismisses imagination and thought, branding passion for knowledge as irrelevant. Shrill posturing in the media and among policy makers fosters a boxing-match mentality as we, the citizens, become spectators whose emotions and sensations must be kept high in a sort of adrenaline rush that turns us into passive onlookers, addicted to the game.

In a recent CNN interview, Mark Zuckerberg suggested, with every good intention, that scientists should be treated as celebrities, remarking that Einstein had been one in his own time. What does the word “celebrity” even mean? We imagine Einstein with his eyes turned inward and not toward the camera, a beautifully absentminded genius with ruffled hair and sandals. But Einstein was articulate and well-read, a lover of classical music, and it was he who said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

The truth of the matter is that scientists do not need to become celebrities. What they need is respect and support for endeavors that might not make money but are important to human knowledge and therefore to humanity. The first favor one could do for both scientists and artists would be to stop pitting them against one another, remembering the words of a great writer and scientist, Nabokov, who used to advise his students, “You need the passion of a scientist and the precision of a poet.”

I object to the notion that passion and imagination are superfluous, that the humanities have no practical or pragmatic use or relevance and should thus be subservient to other, more “useful” fields. In fact, imaginative knowledge is pragmatic: it helps shape our attitude to the world and our place in it and influences our capacity to make decisions. Politicians, educators, businessmen—we are all affected by this vision or its lack. If it is true that in a democracy, imagination and ideas are secondary, a sort of luxury, then what is the purpose of life in such a society? What will make its citizens loyal or concerned about their country’s well-being, and not just their own selfish pursuits? I would argue that imaginative knowledge is, in a very practical sense, indispensable to the formation of a democratic society, its vision of itself and its future, playing an important role in the preservation of the democratic ideal. At some point this state of affairs became an obsession with me, and I began to think that there must be some connection between the demise of the idealistic or moral aspects of the American dream and its material side. I started collecting newspaper accounts and statistics on the state of the humanities, alongside articles on education, health care, social mobility and all the other component parts of the material aspect of the American dream. Parallel to works of poetry and fiction, biography and history, my office and my home gradually became filled with cuttings from newspapers and magazines and printouts of Internet articles. I began reading blogs on education and books about the Internet or the state of the economy, surprising my friends with references to Joseph Stiglitz and Jaron Lanier. In my notebooks I copied down statements by policy makers and media pundits. My husband routinely complained about the many programs I had taped—PBS, 60 Minutes, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert—leaving little room for him to record his soccer games. Words that I had never paid attention to now made frequent appearances in my notes, alongside phrases like “income inequality” and “upward mobility.” After the fashion of my student days, I pasted a few sentences on a piece of paper and wrote underneath, in red ink, “The American dream?” Later, I added: “The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves as a nation. Works of the imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.”

And yet I was not unaware that the current state of affairs was partly due to the fact that many of our dreams had been fulfilled. America is far more inclusive now than it was even four decades ago, when I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. Technology has opened many different vistas; it has connected us to the rest of the world in unimaginable ways and created possibilities for education and knowledge on a vast scale. In Iran, it has allowed students and people of all ages who are opposed to theocratic rulers and their oppressive ways to find a voice that cannot be censored, to form a community of people sharing the same ideals and passions.

The current crisis is in some respects the outcome of an inherent contradiction at the heart of American democracy, one that Tocqueville so brilliantly anticipated. America’s desire for newness and its complete rejection of ties and traditions lead both to great innovations—a necessary precondition for equality and wealth—and to conformity and complacency, a materialism that invites a complete withdrawal from public and civic spheres and disdain for thought and reflection. This makes it all the more urgent, in this time of transition, to ask new questions, to define not just who we are but who we want to be.

• • •

For Ramin, “freedom” and “individual rights” were not mere words. He had experienced their deprivation in concrete terms and had been forced to read books, listen to music, dance and hold hands with his girlfriend in secret, like a criminal, and like a criminal he had been punished—over here we can safely say tortured—when his transgression was discovered. How could he comprehend the careless attitude he found toward ideas and imagination in the country that had produced Emily Dickinson and Ralph Ellison? For him, as for millions of others who have lost a country and a life coming to this land in search of the fugitive freedom they were denied back home, imagination and ideas are not accessories; they are essential to the preservation of identity, to what makes us human beings with a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so while all of these future or would-be citizens will celebrate the generosity of America, its gift of choice and freedom, they are often more anxious than those born here about the potential of squandering what is now so frequently taken for granted.

I could have told Ramin that in many ways totalitarian and democratic societies are one another’s distorted mirrors, each reflecting and predicting the other’s potentials and pitfalls. In countries such as Iran, imagination is threatened by a regime that desires total control over the lives of its citizens, for whom resistance against the state is not just a political act but an existential one. But what of democracies, where that naked tyranny does not exist? In a totalitarian country, brutality and repression are present in their most blatant forms: torture, arbitrary laws, executions. Ironically, within such societies, the value of imagination, its threat to the existence of the state as well as its importance to the lives of citizens, is quite obvious—which is one reason why people in repressive societies tend to take great risks to read banned books, watch banned films and listen to banned music. For them literature is not simply a path toward literacy or a necessary step in their education. It is a basic need, a way to reclaim an identity confiscated by the state.

Although literacy is the first and essential step toward the kind of engaged citizenry necessary for a thriving democracy, it is not enough, for it is only the means to an end. What we learn and how we learn it is just as important. Regardless of their ideological inclinations, autocracies like those wreaking havoc in Iran, China, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and North Korea are afraid, and justifiably so, of the aftermath of literacy—namely, knowledge, the bite of the forbidden fruit, with its promise of a different kind of power and freedom. That is why the Taliban destroys schools and wishes to murder young teenage girls like Malala who are brave enough to publicly articulate their passionate desire for education and freedom.

The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky memorably quipped that Lenin, Stalin and Mao were all literate people—Stalin was an editor, and Mao wrote “some verse,” as he put it. The problem was “their hit list was longer than their reading list.” It is not for no reason that totalitarian states view the so-called liberal arts as dangerous and subversive and seek to eliminate them at all costs. They know the dangers of genuine free inquiry. Their fear of democratic societies and their hostility toward them are less a function of military might than of culture, and all the trouble that can bring. And so it is that they ironically appreciate what we increasingly dismiss and devalue.

In a democracy, the arts tend not to threaten the state or to exert such a sense of urgency. You can be seduced into a paralysis of consciousness, a state of intellectual indolence. “The real danger for a writer is not so much the possibility (and often the certainty) of persecution on the part of the state, as it is the possibility of finding oneself mesmerized by the state’s features, which, whether monstrous or undergoing changes for the better, are always temporary.” Again, Brodsky! This is true of both democracies and totalitarian societies. Every state, including a totalitarian one, has its lures and seductions. The price we pay for succumbing is conformity, a surrender of one’s self to the dictates of the group. Fiction is an antidote, a reminder of the power of individual choice. Every novel has at its core a choice by at least one of its protagonists, reminding the reader that she can choose to be her own person, to go against what her parents or society or the state tell her to do and follow the faint but essential beat of her own heart.

What made Brodsky, Nabokov, Czeslaw Milosz and Hannah Arendt—all of whom took refuge in America (Einstein too, for that matter)—resist the totalitarian states of their home countries and reject the empty temptations of Western democracies was essentially one and the same thing: they knew that to negate and betray that inner self was not just a surrender to the tyrant’s will but a sort of self-inflicted death. You become a cog in a vast and invisible wheel over which you have no control—Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, only without the comedy.

That inner self is what makes it possible for private individuals to become responsible citizens of their country and of the world, linking their own good to that of their society, becoming active and informed participants. For this they need to know, to pause, to think, to question. It is this quality that we find in so many of America’s fictional heroes, from Huckleberry Finn to Mick Kelly in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. How can we protect ourselves from a culture of manipulation, where tastes and flavors are re-created chemically in laboratories and given to us as natural food, where religion is packaged, televised and tweeted and commercials influence us to such an extent that they dictate not only what we eat, wear, read and want but what and how we dream. We need the pristine beauty of truth as revealed to us in fiction, poetry, music and the arts: we need to retrieve the third eye of the imagination.

If my students in Iran and millions of other brave souls like Malala and Ramin risked their lives in order to preserve their individual integrity, their access to free thought and education, what will we risk to preserve our access to this Republic of Imagination? To say that only repressive regimes require art and imagination is to belittle life itself. It is not pain and brutality that engender the need to write or the desire to read. If we believe in the first three words of the Constitution, “We the People,” then we know that the task of defending the right to imagination and free thought is the responsibility not just of writers and publishers but of readers, too. I am reminded of Nabokov’s statement that “readers are born free and ought to remain free.” We have learned to protest when writers are imprisoned, or when their books are censored and banned. But what about readers? Who will protect us? What if a writer publishes a book and no one is there to read it?

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” So says Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, expressing the feelings of millions. We must read, and we must continue to read the great subversive books, our own and others’. That right can be guaranteed only by the active participation of every one of us, citizen readers.

• • •

As a child, I was too mesmerized by the Land of Oz to pay much attention to that other place where Dorothy lived, her home in Kansas. It is described in some detail: The house is really one large room where Dorothy, Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and Dorothy’s dog, Toto, all live. “When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.”

Dorothy’s relatives, the only human beings she comes into contact with, are not merely dull but stern and uncommunicative. Aunt Em, we are told, used to be pretty, but “the sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also.” She never smiles. There is a rather frightening description of poor Aunt Em’s reaction to Dorothy when she first arrives after her mother and father have died: “Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.” Uncle Henry, “stern and solemn” is also gray and never laughs. He works from morning to night and “did not know what joy was.”

Only Toto, the merry little black dog, “saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings.” And yet Dorothy never complains. She never wants to leave that dull farm in Kansas. Dorothy is no Alice, running after a white rabbit or its magical equivalent. She is not bored with her seemingly boring life. She is no Little Prince roaming the earth and acquiring wisdom—nor is she the mischievous wooden doll Pinocchio, who has to climb into the jaws of a whale in order to become human. She is a little girl thrown into the magic world of Oz by accident, because that cyclone uprooted her as she was going about her business, like any other girl her age.

Dorothy has an unwavering determination to return home. Nothing is more important to her than Kansas and her stern relatives’ lonely house in the middle of nowhere. When the Scarecrow says to her, “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas,” she responds, “That is because you have no brains.” And then she goes on to explain, “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

There have been many interpretations of this story offered up over the years. Some have described it as an allegory of the political and economic circumstances of its times (it was published in 1900) or a reflection of its author’s support of the Populist Party and of his ideas on monetary reform. The yellow brick road leading to Oz has been compared with the gold standard, and the Emerald City to the land of greenbacks and fake ideals, while Dorothy’s silver slippers (ruby red in the film) represent the Populists’ support for the use of free silver instead of gold. The famous Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Technicolor talkie, made in the thirties, has likewise been interpreted in light of its times (in this case the Great Depression). All of this is interesting, and some of it does ring true—as with many stories, one of the pleasures of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is its many levels of allusion and meaning. But we would have forgotten it long ago if not for its magic. That magic is at the heart of the story, a minor miracle that has nothing to do with political allegories. It is not just Dorothy’s miraculous uprooting and transportation to the Land of Oz; it is what greets her when she comes home. Dorothy returns to Kansas safely, but her home has changed in essential, if seemingly imperceptible ways. We can sense it in Aunt Em’s transformed attitude—she has been watering the cabbages when she sees Dorothy running toward her. “‘My darling child!’ she cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her face with kisses.”

Dorothy’s lesson—and it is the lesson of every great story—is that the land of make-believe, that wonderland, the magical Oz, is not far away; it is, in fact, in our backyard, accessible if only we have the eyes to see it and the will to seek it. Dorothy, Alice, Hansel and Gretel all return home, but they will never be the same, because they have learned to look at the world through the alternative eyes of the imagination. That essential transformation is a change of heart. In a depersonalized and atomized environment, the heart preserves our essential humanity and makes possible our connection and communication with the rest of the world. We the readers are like Dorothy or Alice: we step into this magical world in order to return and retell the story through our own eyes, thus giving new meaning to the story as well as to our lives. This is the reason we need readers—not just in our academies but everywhere, in every town, in every walk of life. We need readers to give a new spin to the experience we call life.

It is interesting that Dorothy’s time in the Land of Oz is not presented as a dream—the reader is left to draw her own conclusions as to whether these things really happened. Perhaps this blurring of the lines between everyday reality and dreams is in fact the true magic of Dorothy’s story: the fact that for her, the most enchanted place is her humble home in all its bare simplicity.

I first discovered Dorothy’s story many decades ago in Tehran, in a home that no longer exists, and I have returned to it in my new home of Washington, D.C. My physical homes have changed, but the story remains, and so does its magic. What would life be like without that wonderland in our backyard? Like most children, I had my own desire for elsewhere, for a secret hiding place that would take me to a parallel world. And, like most children, I differentiated between my real and imagined worlds—instinctively I knew that at some point I would have to return to real life, and that was okay, so long as I had my portable world of the imagination with me. Somehow the stories, the travels to Oz and to Wonderland, with Pinocchio into the stomach of the whale, and later to that remote planet where the Little Prince watered that one flower—his self-centered rose—made me more willing to go through the routines of life. At times I feel as if the Land of Oz, along with Alice’s Wonderland and Scheherazade’s room, is fading and receding the way light recedes into darkness. We all know how easy it is to lose our real homes. What will we do in the absence of this most enduring of all homes, this Republic of Imagination?

• • •

Life after a totalitarian revolution is not unlike a day after a cyclone. The air may be crisp and brilliant, but there is plenty of debris around to remind us of what is missing. You have to ask yourself, Where should I start to pick up the pieces? In a country as ancient as Iran, telling stories has been a time-tested way of resisting political, social and cultural invasion. Our stories and myths became our home, creating a sense of continuity with a past that had been so consistently plundered and obliterated. For many of us, lighting out was the only way to survive; it was not always possible or desirable in a physical sense, but we could escape through the realm of imagination and ideas.

Home! How deceptive and fragile that enticing concept can be. For an immigrant, any new country is always conceived either negatively or positively in light of the country left behind. For me, my new home was always firmly rooted in its fictional landscapes. All I had left from my beloved Iran was the portable world of memories and literature that my father had taught me to appreciate. I knew when I left (and nothing has happened since to change this view) that it was the only world upon which I could safely rely.

It was in Iran that I discovered the close relationship between individual rights and the right to free expression, the indispensability of a democratic imagination. My students might have been opposed to (with some justification) or ignorant of America’s policies, but they celebrated its music, its films and its literature. It seems right to me that the fiction of one country should kindle one’s understanding of another—not the “other” captured and domesticated by certain academic theorists and guardians of political correctness but that living, breathing other that Atticus alludes to in To Kill a Mockingbird when he says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Difference is always celebrated in literature, but the cult of difference can become dangerous when it is not accompanied by that shock of recognition and the realization of how alike we are—that, despite our differences, our hearts beat to the same rhythms and we are all capable of the best and the worst. It is this realization of our shared humanity that makes it possible for people to make their home in another country. Exile always entails a sense of loss. Home is not home anymore, but in time a different place offers up the potential for new memories and relationships.

When I left Iran for good and came to America with my family in 1997, I had so much to be grateful for. My husband, Bijan, found a job working as a civil engineer, and I enrolled my children in the local public school. We bought a house, and I was offered a job teaching at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. At first I reveled in my newfound freedom: at last, I could craft my own curriculum without having to worry that the dean would call me in if my hair slipped out from underneath my headscarf, or for my unorthodox and casual behavior toward my students, or the unsavory books I taught. But nothing is as simple as that—there were new challenges and new ideologies as fiercely and rigidly defended as any in Iran. Like all ideologies, the one I now found myself confronting depended on a simplification of reality and a generalization of concepts—looking to complacent, ready-made answers and inviting little self-questioning. What had started as a serious theoretical questioning of authority had by now become an easy formula, applied to both literature and reality. From this perspective, nothing that pertained to old norm and judgments would be tolerated. Classic texts were now suspect, symbols of scorned elitist orthodoxy. Eighteen years had passed since I had finished my doctorate in America, and many of the English and American writers I had taught in Iran had not fared well in my absence. Here too they had been tried and judged and found wanting.

Living under the Islamic regime’s black-and-white system, my views had become more complex and nuanced. I drew closer to the fiction I so loved, in which everyone was granted a voice, even the villain. Students who disagreed with my political views—and who, being in a place of power, could have denounced me because of my unruly habit of voicing those views—would come to my office to talk about Bellow or Nabokov, Ibsen or Austen. I had stumbled on a way to communicate with people who otherwise would never have approached me. That changed my life and my attitude toward life. It turned something that had been a private passion into a more urgent calling, which I felt I could no longer keep to myself. I came to see my passion for books and reading as intimately connected to my life as a citizen, as a teacher, as a writer, and felt I had a responsibility to articulate and share it in a public manner. This was one reason why I wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran. I wanted to share the gift my students had offered me. But there was also another reason. When I was asked what Iranians thought of Americans, instead of spouting hackneyed truisms, I thought I might tell the story of that young girl, a young Muslim girl, in fact, who had never left Iran but who wrote poetry in three languages and composed one of the best essays I have ever read by a student on Virginia Woolf and the Impressionists.

I was expected by some in academia to talk, teach and write as a woman from Iran, with a particular position on the “West” and the “rest.” From this point of view, literature was mainly a reflection, a handmaiden, a means to a political and ideological end, and that meant that if you came from Iran, you could not love Emily Brontë or Herman Melville—a condescending view of Iran and Iranians, if ever there was one. I felt like saying, “Go and tell that to my students in Iran! Tell it to my fellow Iranians, whose supreme leader was so afraid of the power of literature that he condemned a writer to death, a writer whose only weapons were words!” True equality is not an invitation simply to talk about ourselves, to boast about ourselves or present ourselves always as victims. We resist victimhood by choosing who and what we want to speak about, and what is more expressive than a young Iranian girl who has never left the Islamic Republic speaking with insight and passion about Virginia Woolf? Does that detract from her loyalty to her own culture, or does it reveal her confidence in herself and her ability to transcend the proximate circumstances of her life and upbringing?

I wrote Reading Lolita because I wanted people to know that Iranians, real Iranians, are not some exotic other, a product of “their culture,” but that we too are people, like the rest of you. Some of my students were religious and some were not; some were orthodox Muslims and some were secular Muslims; some were Baha’i or Zoroastrian, and there were some who hated religion and some who died for that belief—while some never thought of religion at all. I wanted to show the world that the Iranian youth, the students I was in close contact with for eighteen years, when deprived of access to the world, communicated with it through its golden ambassadors, the very best it could offer: its poets and novelists, playwrights, musicians and filmmakers.

After the success of Reading Lolita, I was invited to speak to groups all across the United States, in red states and blue, big cities and small. At first the invitations were mostly from colleges, and then book festivals, museums and civic associations, and a wide variety of different high schools like City Honors School in Buffalo, Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, Spence and Choate and the Bronx Academy, where through the enthusiastic efforts of one teacher, Amy Matthusen, each year for the past three years I have held a question-and-answer session with her class. In San Antonio, a young woman told me that she was an elementary school teacher and that the art class had recently been dropped and her students shared a music teacher with another school. She herself worked as a part-time librarian to make ends meet. She said this with a smile, partly resigned and partly in protest. In Baltimore, at a book festival, a young Latina girl told me she had come with some of her high school classmates. “Our school is poor, you know,” she said, hesitating a little, knowing that I did know. “But I am going to teach English,” and her mischievous friend behind her said, “Yeah, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

Some came with gifts: a small arrow from New Mexico, a tiny box, a picture book. And as I talked to people old and young, to doctors and soldiers, librarians and teachers, and began to confide my secret desire to connect readers all over the world and engage them in a meaningful dialogue—when I told them about my dream of creating a Republic of Imagination and invited them to join me in a march on Washington so that we would fill the space between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, going past all of the war monuments and the jewel in America’s crown, the Smithsonian, and spreading all the way out toward the Library of Congress and the White House, ending in front of Congress, where we would ask, “Who is going to bail out imagination”—many came up to me afterward and said, “How can I help?” “What can I do?” I found a nation of readers, large and small, old and young, rich and poor, of all colors and backgrounds, united by the shared sense that books matter, that they open up a window into a more meaningful life, that they enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own.

• • •

When Dorothy and her friends finally find the great Wizard, in response to Oz’s declaration “I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,” Dorothy simply responds, “I am Dorothy, the Small and Meek.” Dorothy and her companions discover in the end that the myth of Oz’s power is as much of a sham as their belief in their own weakness, and that they, led by Dorothy, can do what Oz was powerless to achieve: destroy the Wicked Witch and liberate the frightened citizens—a myth worthy of a people who had defeated a mighty empire in search of their own independence.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for The Republic of Imagination

“Do novels still matter in a world where real-life stories are so dramatic? Azar Nafisi’s captivating Republic of Imagination answers this question with a resounding yes. Animated by an electrifying intelligence and a generosity that is nothing short of uplifting, this blend of memoir, biography, and a deep reading of three quintessentially American literary texts makes a successful case for the importance of fiction. Nafisi links the freedom of imagination that unites all readers to the founding ideals of our country and the personal values we claim as Americans.”
The Boston Globe

“Nafisi is a master essayist who sinuously weaves together elements of memoir, criticism, biography, and history; you don’t realize how completely these topics interpenetrate each other until you come to the end of a chapter or section, often (at least in my case) with eyes stung by tears. No one writes better or more stirringly about the way books shape a reader’s identity, and about the way that talking books with good friends becomes integral to how we understand the books, our friends, and ourselves.”
—Laura Miller, Salon

“In works by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, and Carson McCullers, Nafisi finds the essence of the American experience, filtered through narratives not about exceptionalism or fabulous success, but alienation, solitude, and landscape. Her argument is compelling, but more than that, her pleasure in these works is contagious. . . . Will Americans be as willing to take to heart a book that puts us on the spot and asks of us the same serious questions that Nafisi asked of the regime in Tehran? We are more spread out than Iranians, more thoughtless, more susceptible to the marketing of ignorance, perhaps—especially in an election season. But read it. It will do you good.”
—Jane Smiley, The Washington Post

“Nafisi presents a passionate and compelling case for the return of the imagination to our nation’s esteem. . . . As a teacher, she often hears the question posed to all English teachers: Why do we have to read this? This book is a thoughtful and brilliant answer to that question.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“We are all citizens of Azar Nafisi’s Republic of Imagination. Without imagination there are no dreams, without dreams there is no art, and without art there is nothing. Her words are essential.”
—Marjane Satrapi

“Nafisi is back, this time exploring novels that speak to her about America (now her home). . . . She reminds us that immigrants bring many things to America, starting with a fresh set of eyes.”
—Vanity Fair

“Nafisi reflects on her lifelong love for Western literature through an exhilarating exploration of three American classics.”
—O, the Oprah Magazine

The Republic of Imagination is disarming and provocative defense of the grand themes of literature, particularly as they are found in three very American novels. It’s designed as a tonic and inspiration for those concerned about the cultural drift away from literature in particular, and a broad education in the humanities in general, in the age of the Tweet, the YouTube video, and the Reddit meme. . . . A blend of memoir and polemic sure to arouse the inner English prof in most readers.”
—Santa Cruz Sentinel

“In elegant, insightful prose, she blends literary criticism, personal history and social commentary to create an enticing invitation to inhabit the Republic of Imagination.”
—Shelf Awareness

“A passionate argument for returning to key American novels in order to foster creativity and engagement. . . . Literature, writes Nafisi, is deliciously subversive because it fires the imagination and challenges the status quo. . . . Her literary exegesis lightly moves through her own experiences as a student, teacher, friend and new citizen. Touching on myriad literary examples, from L. Frank Baum to James Baldwin, her work is both poignant and informative.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“In The Republic of Imagination, the mirror-image of her first book, Nafisi explores the influence fiction has had on life in America, where literature, while not outlawed, is endangered. . . . Her opening tribute to the power of literature segues into revelatory close readings of the three novels she selected, after much deliberation, as salient expressions of the American spirit, specifically our restlessness, ‘unending questioning,’ and perpetual sense of outsiderness. . . . As a deeply engaged envoy from that republic, Nafisi urges us to read widely and inquisitively.”
—Booklist (starred review)

 

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

In 2003, with the publication of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iranian-born Azar Nafisi became a literary sensation. In 2008, she became an American citizen. But long before she took her oath of allegiance, and perhaps even more intensely thereafter, questions about the United States filled and teased Nafisi’s mind: What does it mean to be American? Why are the values of American art, music, and literature so evidently at odds with the nation’s politics? Is America founded as much on heartbreak as on hope? Why, in the midst of cultural wealth and hundreds of millions of countrymen, do so many Americans lead uninspired, lonely lives?

Armed with her Ph.D. in English from the University of Oklahoma and years of teaching experience both in Iran and the United States, and with the encouragement of a wise friend named Farah, Nafisi went looking for answers. To find them, she turned to the sources she knew best: her own experiences; the sometimes tragic life stories of the people she has held dearest; and, above all, the immortal works of American literature that are, to her, as familiar and as essential as breathing.

The result of Nafisi’s quest is her remarkable new book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. In this deeply reflective and often surprising work, Nafisi leads her readers on a personal journey through three great novels of the American canon—Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt; and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. In these three novels, Nafisi finds a series of quintessential American struggles: Huck’s inner battle between convention and conscience; Babbitt’s reluctant confrontation with the emptiness of his seemingly prosperous life; and the efforts of a quintet of misfits in an impoverished Georgia town to communicate their anguish, their frustrations, and their fragile dreams.

Those who come to Nafisi’s Republic of Imagination expecting to find only cogent literary analysis will find it, but they will also be pleasantly surprised by how much more awaits them. Woven tightly into Nafisi’s meditations on literature are a host of other fascinating strands. In her chapter on Twain, we share her fascination as she observes the richness of American culture—from Coltrane to Cummings, from the Marx Brothers to Melville—and wonders how that richness can exist in the same place that has given us the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Fox News. As she pays homage to Sinclair Lewis, Nafisi deplores the Common Core curriculum and pleads for a freer, more thoughtful and joyful approach to education. And as she explores the work of Carson McCullers, Nafisi descends deep into the heart of the anxiety, loneliness, and violence that daily fray the fabric of American life. But it is perhaps in the portraits of her own friends that Nafisi’s warmth and intelligence is most evident. We meet her lifelong companion Farah, who fights for justice in Iran and barely escapes death following the Islamic Revolution. We meet Mike Wright, a devoted college activist whose idealism slowly gives way to solipsism and paranoia. And, of course, we form a strong acquaintance with Nafisi herself, whose wise and passionate perspective on America makes for truly unforgettable reading. Brilliantly conceived and lovingly written, The Republic of Imagination is a beautiful place to live.

ABOUT AZAR NAFISI

Born in Iran in 1955, Azar Nafisi holds a doctorate in English and American Literature from the University of Oklahoma and has been a United States citizen since 2008. She is a fellow and lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. She is most widely known for her groundbreaking and highly popular 2003 book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which held a place on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years and has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Washington, D.C.

A CONVERSATION WITH AZAR NAFISI

1. In The Republic of Imagination you bring together a multitude of nonfiction genres, including literary criticism, social commentary, and personal memoir. As you constructed the book, how difficult was it to get all these moving parts to mesh together?

Perhaps the most difficult part of writing this book was not so much getting the “moving parts” to mesh together as finding the right structure for this particular book. I had resisted the idea at first of bringing in personal stories. The chapter on Huck Finn, for example, was first written more as literary criticism (it was a long chapter from the start, over a hundred pages). But I felt it lacked energy, and heart. For a long time I was in a state of despair, which led me to look over my files and diaries in search of some form of inspiration, and that is how Farah entered the scene.

I had always been fascinated by my friend Farah’s story and in fact I had tried to insert it into both of my previous books. In Reading Lolita my editor vetoed it, and in Things I Have Been Silent About I myself took it out before handing it to her. The strange thing is that I had never thought I would have room for her in this book, and then there she was, like a guiding star. I was reading through my diary of her last two years, especially that last year when we spent so much time together, and suddenly it dawned on me that there was no better way I could talk about the intersections between fiction and reality—how Huck came in my mind to represent the heroism of ordinary people and a certain kind of American virtue—than by telling the story of our conversations. After that it was still very hard to write, and it took me a long time to get it right, but I felt relieved. I knew I had hit on the right form of expression.

2. In this book, you argue that Americans suffer from a unique kind of loneliness. Do you find that this loneliness is chiefly a feature of the current historical moment or do you think it is something inscribed in the American character?

Well, I believe that Americans both suffer and benefit from this loneliness, which has been with them for a long time, perhaps from the very start. In its best sense this particular form of loneliness, the one so often defined and redefined through great works of fiction, appears as what Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her beautiful pamphlet explaining the reasons for women’s disenfranchisement calls “the solitude of the self.” Her basic tenet is that all individuals are born, live, and die in a state of solitude, and therefore each and every one of us is responsible for how we live and die. To her mind all individuals must have equal rights and opportunities to shape their lives, to make choices. What is interesting about this vision is that it does not promote selfishness and greed, it does not claim that we need to live our lives without regard for others, but suggests instead that our social rights, our need to coexist in society, will be fulfilled when every one of us has the means to live life to its fullest.

I think this is what gives Americans their stamina, their joint sense of independence and responsibility. It is a Huck Finn kind of solitude, not Ayn Rand’s more egotistical and narcissistic kind. Huck is independent, in essence a rebel, but he needs to be with others, to feel for others, and to communicate in order to be whole and to have an idea of who he is and what he wants. He is repelled by the conformity of Miss Watson and the violence of his Pap, but it is through Jim that he is resurrected: his moral self is developed in relation to others, both those his heart rejects and those, like Jim, whom it tells him to value, however much society may tell him it is wrong. This theme runs throughout my book, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz through Babbitt to Baldwin—all of Baldwin’s work is based on this interplay and tension between the heart and the monitoring conscience, between the desire for independence and the need for community. I think it is essential to the preservation of society.

The danger lies in a diametrically opposed interpretation of solitude, one that basks around the cult of the individual, that justifies greed and selfishness, even the current gun violence, and that celebrates the Ayn Randian conception of supermen and superwomen all in the name of American individualism. When this concept is taken to its extreme then individuals do feel, as so many do in modern societies, isolated and without means of communication, like those you meet in Samuel Beckett’s plays and stories or in a different form in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This form of loneliness is in a metaphorical sense a form of social autism.

I mention in the book Tocqueville’s prediction that a time will come in America when individuals will withdraw so much into their own private spheres and lives that they will neglect the public sphere, and, along with that, their civic life and obligations. That, I believe, is a root of the crisis we are facing today.

3. The Republic of Imagination sets out to encapsulate a vision of America by discussing three of its great literary classics. That’s no easy task. Indeed, you initially wanted to articulate your view by writing about two dozen books. Which work did you most regret not having room for, and why?

This is an open wound! And I cannot really choose only one work. I eliminated books as I became more focused on the themes. At first I wanted to begin with Melville’s Confidence Man and to include more works from the twentieth century, from Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Kate Chopin’s Awakening, and Dawn Powell’s stories to Philip Roth and Bellow, Hemingway, Ellison, Chandler, even Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money. . . . Then I realized my own preoccupation was more and more with this homeless, vagrant American hero whose real ancestor was Huck Finn—not Tom Sawyer but Huck.

During the course of my reading and rereading I realized that the sixties had been in many fundamental ways both a culmination and a new beginning and I began to feel I should not go beyond sixties and include more contemporary authors, that it would require a different approach. So Baldwin from early on seemed to be the right author with whom to close the book. He to me is so relevant today in ways we have not yet come to understand. In a sense, ending the book with him leaves it sort of open-ended. He is the one who both ended and began a new era. He has so much to teach us, and today it is again Baldwin who will be placing Stendhal’s mirror in our path. So the good part was reading all these amazing books; the bad part was returning them to the shelves.

4. In your introduction, you recall your relationship with your father—a relationship greatly facilitated and enriched by reading. You also write quite a bit about the importance of reading in maintaining a democracy. What are your thoughts about the role of reading in a family and in society at large?

I think on one level every book I have written, including the one on Nabokov in Iran and perhaps especially my children’s story, BiBi and the Green Voice, suggests the importance of reading in a family and in society. Reading opens the door to that portable wonder world in our backyard, a place of solitude but also of community, a way of withdrawing from the world in order to return to it refreshed and new, a way of fighting habit, conformity, that tendency we have of becoming so used to routine, to rules, that we stop really seeing things, feeling them, touching them. A child sees the world differently: pots and pans become musical instruments, a stick can be a weapon or an imaginary horse, cherries become earrings, the stars hold that Little Prince, and so on and on. That is how we change the world, by seeing it, feeling it, describing it differently, by wandering and wondering, by enlisting that freedom afforded to you only through imagination.

Just consider any great children’s story from any place in the world: the process of learning about the self, about how to assimilate the realities of life and overcome its obstacles, is achieved through an imaginary journey. The Little Prince has to leave his lonely planet to find out why he loves that vain, selfish rose; Pinocchio has to leave home and his good-natured father and creator and pay for his own follies so that he can become truly human. Then there is the dream journey in one of my childhood favorites, Maeterlink’s Blue Bird . . . I could go on and on. The novel, which I think of as the adult version of these tales, is still about a process of discovery and self-discovery: Jane Austen’s characters find the flaws in themselves while subverting traditional norms, as does the mischievous narrator of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, or Tom Jones, or the narrator in Heinrich Böll’s The Clown, safeguarding memories others wish to forget. I could go on and on about how fiction reveals to us who we are and how we are related to others.

If a democracy claims to be based on diversity, on looking at the same world through so many different eyes—if it claims to be based on tolerance, on the ability to put yourself into other people’s shoes; if it claims to be based on change, which requires the alternative eyes of imagination; if it claims to be based on choice, which means the ability to go beyond the surface, to break through appearances in order see the truth—then it cannot afford not to read, not to imagine.

5. You write that as a teacher from Iran living in America, you discovered that people expected you to conform your instruction to a role and a viewpoint dictated by your ethnicity. You’ve found that experience far from pleasing. What do you have to say generally about the politicization of literature in the academic world?

I experienced this not just as a teacher but even more as a writer and an activist. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone was or is like that, but a sizable number of people among our elite today, both academic and political, impose their formulas upon the world. One central theme of this book is challenging and resisting conformity in all its shapes and forms. Ideological thinking is a form of absolutism, of conformity. It makes one feel smug and self-righteous and has little respect either for reality or fiction, both of which are elusive, diverse, and ambiguous. Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer in Babbitt, calls this the “standardization of thought.” Once you begin to categorize everything, to put people and things into different boxes affixed with labels, you risk becoming similar in your attitude to Miss Watson, Huck’s prim guardian, who wants so much to educate him. The danger lurks in society at large and is in a sense amplified in places like academia, whose very existence depends on freedom of thought, on the sacred nature of the profane.

I believe that democracy is not just about the freedom of individuals but also about freedom and independence of different fields of human endeavor, which, while interdependent, have to preserve their independence in order to function properly. The politicization of any field, including art and science but especially literature, is dangerous because it involves a reduction of scope and a diminishing of possibilities. In the case of literature it takes away its essential function, its freedom to roam and to subvert not just political reality but any kind of conformity. And it often takes the form of physical violence: imprisoning, torturing, and outlawing poets. I wrote about how my students in Iran connected to the world through its literature, music, and arts; some could not take this at face value because it did not fit their neat little theories, so there had to be a nasty political purpose behind it, a worship of all things Western. But what I was writing about was not just limited to people like me.

All you have to do is to look at the young people in Iranian universities today—read their blogs, take a look at their works of art, their films, test their knowledge of books and music, movies, art, even fashion and you will see that what I was describing is not at all far from the truth. If the extremists’ view of religion is what the majority of people want and believe in, then why does the regime still after over three decades needs guns, prisons, and torture to implement its vision? When you call a country Muslim, it does not mean that Muslims are creatures from out of space, that they are so different from us that flogging people for their appearance, stoning people to death, does not strike them as objectionable. In Iran as in America, we have very fanatical Muslims, moderate ones, and very liberal ones. We even have Muslims who have become atheists, and others who are secular, and we also have agnostics and atheists and Jews and Zoroastrians and Christians and Baha’is. They are all Iranian, and they all should have equal rights and representation. But then to ideological extremes on the right and left this is really unpalatable. It makes things complicated; it forces us to rethink, to admit that Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, people with different beliefs still share many universal values, have many diverse views of what their culture and religion means. We take away that freedom by turning literature and art into handmaidens of political issues of the day, a few theories that appear immutable—this is true of both the extremes on the right and the left. They seem to be opposed and they are in terms of their political positions and agendas, but not in their ideological stance and polarized and absolutist attitude.

So the adventures of a little boy who is ignorant of politics is still a scathing critique of tyranny. Politicization simplifies, making us feel smug because we don't question; we already know. Imagination is about complexity, paradox, and contradiction, about ambiguity and doubt.

6. While we’re on the subject of how one teaches literature, it’s evident that you see books as intimately connected with the lives of the people who wrote them. Strangely, this has become a controversial proposition in many English departments. What would you like to tell critics who insist that the text should be studied in isolation, apart from its personal and social contexts?

To begin with, let me clarify one thing: I believe books of poetry and fiction should stand on their own two feet. If we need to know about the author’s life or historical and political life of the era she is writing about in order to enjoy or understand the book, then there is something wrong. In my classes I encourage students to avoid reading biographies, theories, or reviews or to avoid seeking my opinions of the assigned works before first reading and connecting to the works themselves. I want my students to have their own unmediated relation with book.

Having said that, in my writing I keep returning to a theme that has fascinated me for a long time: the interactions and intersections between fiction and reality, ways through which each defines and transforms the other. How does a work of fiction become so organic a part of its multitude of readers’ most personal feelings, experiences, and emotions? Just think how vastly different are the many readers who over two thousand years have discovered Homer, or the Mahabharata? And yet all these individuals, by reading these books, by connecting to them, create a community, unique and universal. So what I am after is discovering the ways through which a great writer transforms her most intimate dreams and personal experiences into something universal and transcendent. It is mainly from that viewpoint that I examine the lives of authors. I believe with Baldwin that life and art are closely intertwined and one cannot exist without the other; therefore it is not surprising that this approach has its fascination for me and that Baldwin and Twain are among my favorite writers, along with Kafka!

7. The three main sections of your book focus, in turn, on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Yet the first book you discuss at some length is actually The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Is there a sense in which L. Frank Baum is even more fundamental to Americanness than Twain, Lewis, or McCullers?

Well, to tell you the truth what I talk about in both the introduction and epilogue is as fundamental as the books I discuss in the three middle chapters. I mention The Wizard of Oz partly because it was the first American book I remember reading. But also because it represents a very powerful myth about America, one that takes a different direction from Huck Finn. Dorothy returns home; Huck rejects it. I followed Huck this time, because I think he is so fundamental to the idea of America. I end the book with Baldwin because he is to me the true heir to Twain—I am speaking here about both his essays and his fiction. He is the “exquisite mongrel” Mark Twain talks about. And because I believe Baldwin’s ideas on both literature and life are so crucial to all times, especially to the times we live in.

8. You return frequently to a strange duality in America: the tension between the beauty of its literature and art and the tawdriness of its politics and economics. Why, in your view, is it so hard to get these two Americas to talk to each other?

Perhaps it is not fair to attribute this only to America. I think this duality exists in every culture and in every country, the tension between fiction and reality. And fiction’s beauty does not reside in the reality it expresses, which is often quite tawdry and terrible, (think of Shakespeare or Flaubert, not just of books I discuss here). That beauty is the result of the way literature expresses reality, illuminates it, recreates it as we readers become Alice wandering through Wonderland. It resides in the way literature expresses our resistance to the cruelty and absurdity of the world. It is the most powerful way of saying no to the absoluteness of death and transience of life.

9. Apart from the fact that your friend Farah was deeply involved in the writing of the section, why did you choose to pair your treatment of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the story of your relationship?

My reasons were based not just on our shared passion for Huck Finn and for literature in general but on our effort to understand, to define what it meant for us to be in a constant state of exile, what it entailed to be an American, and for both of us the answer lay in fiction and history as much as in the present state of the country. Huck Finn provided us a map. He gave us access first to the imaginary and then the real America. For me writing is mainly a conversation on different levels, between fiction and reality, between the writer and the imaginary reader, and in this case between Farah and me. I wanted to capture how the story of our own unique relationship was revealed to us by retracing Huck’s story.

But having said all that, what was fascinating to me was not merely the ideas we shared but the conversation, the passionate life-and-death manner in which we discussed all these things. It seemed to me I could not write that chapter without reimagining my conversations with Farah and the way she illuminated so many things for me about Iran, about America, and about the meaning of Huck Finn.

10. Your examination of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is notably hard on Tom Sawyer, whom you call the “villain” of the novel. Might that be going a bit rough on a character who is, after all, only a boy? And isn’t the villainy in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn more a condition of a society than the fault of a single person?

It’s quite right that villainy is in part a social condition, but this doesn't let characters off the hook. Their individual traits represent not just a particular society's condition but also a more universal human condition. And all this is conveyed through the characters and their interactions.

Yes, Tom is just a kid, but so is Huck, and yet both in all “innocence” do represent certain fundamental moral and ethical matters. What they each say and do, the decisions they make, especially in relation to Jim, have very serious consequences. Huck decides that to betray Jim means betraying his own heart, and he risks going to hell to remain faithful to Jim. Tom treats Jim as he does everyone else—more as a toy, as a figment of his imagination. And what each believes in and does has serious consequences. What would have happened to Jim if Huck had not torn the letter to Miss Watson or if Tom were not interrupted in his so-called rescue mission?

11. Your chapter on Babbitt contains a scathing critique of the new Common Core. In your opinion, how have the Common Core’s supporters misconceived the purposes of education?

As I mention in the book, the Common Core standards are not the only thing that is wrong with our system of education today, but they help illuminate an attitude toward education as whole that to me is questionable. It is that attitude, which goes further than the standards themselves, that I target in my critique—an attitude that is deeply engrained in Babbitt’s approach to works of imagination. I think he would have been quite at home with phrases like “career-ready” and “informational texts” used by the creator of the Common Core. The main problem is not that we don’t train students to be “career-ready.” After all, to be a librarian, a bookseller, a teacher, a poet, or a museum curator is to have a career as much as to be an engineer, a tech expert, a mathematician, or a politician for that matter. But the creators of the Common Core want to produce more “productive” citizens.

The Common Core is like a straitjacket. Teachers need to be given the freedom to challenge their students and allow them to follow their natural curiosity. But the main problem right now is the increasing gap between public and private schools. No matter how many “reforms” we bring to the educational system without confronting this gap and providing public schools with enough funding and support, we will not improve the quality of education.

In a nutshell: our public schools need proper funding; teachers must have respect, job security, and decent wages so that they will not have to do other jobs in their spare time or, as some among the best teachers do, leave the public schools for the perks of private schools. In fact public schools in the more affluent areas of the country prove how great they can be, and compete with the best privates schools in America. I can testify to this because both my children went to excellent public middle schools and high schools and they turned out to be excellent “career-ready” college graduates. But to achieve this you do not need to reduce and belittle fiction or music or sideline the arts and humanities, segregating them from their natural allies, science and mathematics.

I also object to the process chosen to create and implement the Common Core standards, a process funded and promoted by the Gates Foundation, formulated and implemented mainly by people with little or no teaching experience or background. We are justifiably wary of government intervention in our lives. Shouldn’t we also be suspicious of that of private corporations and wealthy individuals, however well-meaning? Government is supposed to represent all of us and not those who have so much money that they decide to take over certain public arenas.

Change in the school system must come from within the school communities, from educators themselves, and from those who are working closely with them. It is also obvious that I disagree with the definition of fiction used by the formulators of the Common Core and their weighting of the division between literary and so-called informational texts. I am not convinced that this division—and the marginalizing of fiction it entails—will help enhance our students’ critical and analytical powers.

12. To play devil’s advocate for a moment: your book praises Huck and criticizes Babbitt. But Huck’s a liar and a chicken thief who, at the end of the book, flees from social responsibility. For all his faults, Babbitt holds down a job, provides for his family, and connects, however problematically, with his community. If, as you say (and you’re probably right), Huck is the more heroic of the two, then what is it about American life that turns what some might call doing one’s duty into something morally suspect?

Ah! Yes, there’s the rub! From the very first page, Huck alerts us that this story is going to drag us kicking and screaming out of our comfort zone. You remember the way Huck spells civilization? In his world it is subverted into “sivilization.” The whole book is about the hypocrisy and cruelty of conformity and the ways in which language is used to ensure and justify it. After all, you live in a world where the slave owners are the respectable people and the law protects perfect strangers’ owning and selling of children down the river. It is a world where decent, churchgoing families kill one another for a reason they don’t even remember; they go to church on Sundays, but they don’t forget their guns. It is a world in which, if Huck and Jim do not wear their disguises, if they do not lie and cheat, they will not survive. The same is true of Babbitt, of course. We all experience this in a totalitarian society like the former Soviet Union or in a democracy like the United States, where for example the billionaires become “job creators,” the unemployed “moochers”—one can go on and on. In Iran it was not just a matter of lying about your political and religious beliefs in order to survive but about minute aspects of your everyday life. Each time I walked into the street, I had to negate myself and appear in a garb that was alien to my body, to react and interact in public in a manner unfamiliar to me. I had to be what I was told I should become. So whether I wanted to be or not, I was a liar. And we know that all great fiction—from Pride and Prejudice to Madame Bovary, Confessions of Zeno to The Clown to My Uncle Napoleon—is subversive by nature, subversive of respected norms and values, all in one way or another writing the word civilization with an “s.”

13. Your chapters on Twain and Lewis are named after characters. But your chapter on McCullers is named for the author. Why the change?

The truth is that we could have named that chapter after one of the characters in the book, but then that would have been only to preserve the formal unity. In both Huck and Babbitt the books were named after the central character because they were about that character. But in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, we have in fact six main characters, counting Singer. So it seemed reasonable to name that chapter after the creator of those characters, who had to “become” each one of them, by imagining them and getting under their skin.

14. In your epilogue, you point to an interesting duality between J. D. Salinger and James Baldwin on the subject of innocence. Whereas some might regard Holden Caulfield’s desire to preserve innocence as one of his most appealing traits, you find this desire troublesome. You prefer the attitude of Baldwin’s character John Grimes, who demands knowledge instead of innocence as his fundamental condition. Why do you find Holden’s love of innocence misplaced?

I do understand and empathize with Holden, but I believe with Baldwin that we cannot afford to remain innocent. Implied in the idea of innocence is abdication of responsibility: If we don’t know, then we are not responsible; we don’t need to speak out, to act. Within this context innocence has been and still is responsible for too many crimes, too many terrible events not just in the world but in our own backyard. No one can be protected the way Holden wishes he could protect his sister and other children. The only protection is to face the world, to know the world, and to challenge the world. I take issue with innocence because knowledge always involves a lack of innocence, knowledge comes with pain, with the desire to do something about what we know—it is both joyous and anguish filled. As Baldwin reminds us, it has always been and will always be associated with the Fall. Who wants to live in paradise when you can take that glorious fall through the skies?

15. You’ve suggested three books as a means for beginning to understand America. Are there three Iranian books that might offer a similar window for Westerners on that country?

The Book of Kings written a thousand years ago by the great epic poet Ferdowsi; Faces of Love, a selection of poems by three seventh-century Persian poets—the great Hafiz, a woman poet, and the obscene poet Obeid Zakani; My Uncle Napoleon, hilarious and tender, a beautiful and humorous love story, perhaps still the most beloved and popular novel in Iran. All three have been translated, with superb introductions, by the great British-born poet and translator and lover of Persian literature Dick Davis.

16. We would imagine that the mass popularity you achieved with Reading Lolita in Tehran has somewhat changed your definition of success. As you go forward, what does it mean to you now to succeed as a writer?

For me, as it is I believe for any writer, the most important thing is to be able to write, to write well, to write better, to live long enough to write your next book. In my case I am not sure if I write well or better, or even if I will live to write my next book, but I know that success at its best provided me with the opportunity to pursue my passion and to connect to those who share similar passions.

I had just graduated from college when I returned to Iran and had not written anything but terms papers and a dissertation. I believe I came of age once I started writing my first article and then my first book in Iran. I realized how amazing a book is in connecting you to people you want to be connected to, people sharing similar ideals and aspirations. But the problem was that, like other writers in Iran, I was constantly handicapped by the censors, by the inability to express all that I wanted to. This created a sense of constant frustration and anger, preventing me from writing what I desired. After my first book was published in America I felt the same amazing feeling of connection, but also the freedom to express myself, to give myself no limits except the limits of form and structure. I had found a way to communicate not just with Americans and Europeans, or Turks, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, but also with the people in Iran. There was this amazing community of readers that lived in so many different places, from so many diverse backgrounds. In that sense success was and is a privilege.

But of course there are quite a few “bad things” about what we call success, among them the demands on your time and multiple temptations diverting you from your work. I really mean it when I say I have never considered myself as a “success.” Or to put it more precisely, I have never taken what is called success seriously in myself or others, so I hope that in itself will provide some form of immunity.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What does Azar Nafisi understand best about America? In your view, is there anything that she misunderstands? Discuss you answer.
  2. In the first paragraph of her introduction, Nafisi offers the assertion (through someone else’s voice) that Americans “don’t care about books and such things” (p. 1). Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is the case, and what can or should be done to change it?
  3. What are Nafisi’s thoughts on the idea of “home”? How does she express these ideas in her discussion of her three books?
  4. Nafisi quotes Carson McCullers for the proposition that “Americans are the loneliest [people] of all” (p. 29). Is she right? If so, what makes us so lonely? How might your answer to this question differ from one that Nafisi might give?
  5. Nafisi fantasizes about organizing a march on Washington to proclaim her “Republic of Imagination” (p. 27). What might this march look like? Would you consider joining it? Why or why not?
  6. Echoing the judgment of Ernest Hemingway, Nafisi regards The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the ancestor of all subsequent American fiction. What arguments does she offer to establish Twain’s novel as the quintessential, inescapable American story? Does she persuade you?
  7. Nafisi writes, “The United States is a country founded as much on broken dreams as it is on hope and promise” (p. 115). She offers both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the life of her friend Farah in support of her assertion. Is America unique in its dual capacity for hope and tragedy? Discuss your answer.
  8. In her section on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nafisi also narrates her own story of becoming an American citizen (pp. 111-115). What reflections on the subjects of identity, both personal and national, does this decision lead her to? What, if anything, is Nafisi able to perceive about America that a lifelong citizen might not see as readily? In your view, does her becoming a citizen give her more of a right to criticize America than if she remained legally Iranian?
  9. Nafisi regards Huck as an archetype of the “successful failure” (p. 141). The financially secure but morally cornered George F. Babbitt might contrastingly be seen as a failed success. To succeed morally like Huck, must one fail by worldly measures, and vice versa? Why do at least some people, Nafisi included, seem to regard this as the great, inevitable American trade-off?
  10. What is Nafisi’s concept of the ideal education? How is that ideal ignored and disserved by David Coleman’s Common Core?
  11. Nafisi asks, “Are we all becoming Babbitts now?” (p. 169) Well, are we? What does it mean to be a Babbitt? How does a person become one, and why does Nafisi see such a transformation as a fate worse than death?
  12. Nafisi quotes from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, “The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone” (p. 262). But isn’t America somehow about standing on one’s own? And if so, is there a fatal quality woven into our national identity? (In answering this question, you may wish to consider the connection that Nafisi suggests between American loneliness and our endless epidemic of mass shootings (p. 278).)
  13. Nafisi sees a parallel between the quiet desperation of McCullers’s characters and America’s current malaise. Yet McCullers’s book was set in the Great Depression, whereas, despite the crash of our economy of 2008, contemporary America still looks and feels, for the most part, like an affluent society. Has America changed more than Nafisi recognizes or are our current discontents part of the same narrative?
  14. Nafisi’s epilogue is chiefly concerned with the life and writing of James Baldwin. What, according to Nafisi, does Baldwin have to teach us about the leap of faith that is known as being an American?

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The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a very well written book of literary criticism and it inspired me to read the writer's very well known book Reading Lolita in Tehran.   However, in reading the Republic of the Imagination, it helped that I had read within the last ten years two of the books  Ms. Nafisi reviewed, Huckleberry Finn and Babbitt; in addition I liked both of these books.     I found it harder to read the section where Ms. Nafisi examines The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which I have not read.  However, this book did make me want to read it. It is a book for English majors and people who enjoy reading about literary fiction ; it is not a book for fiction nonbelievers.  I was a little disappointed that the book was not a call to arms  about the joys and importance of fiction which I do think is under attack now.   However, perhaps that goes beyond the scope of the book.
jlking More than 1 year ago
The Republic of Imagination, loaded with excellent quotes, reads as part memoir, but mainly as academic discussion, on the ideas which define this place inside our heads in which reading fiction helps to grow. Nafisi’s Republic is a place of imagination where we can create independent thoughts, where we learn to have empathy from reading, and where reading fiction helps to cultivate inner thought, and in turn makes us better citizens of the world. Yes, books are important. Without them, we remain small, inside ourselves, without a deeper way of connecting to the human experience, and life. Nafisi has written a beautiful book on the power and importance of fiction.
BrandieC More than 1 year ago
Described by the publisher as "[a] passionate hymn to the power of fiction to change people's lives," Azar Nafisi's The Republic of the Imagination sounded like it would be just up my alley. Unfortunately, I did not pay sufficient attention to the warning that Nafisi would be "blending" her "close readings" of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter with "memoir and polemic." Far from a "blending," The Republic of the Imagination is a disconnected hodge-podge which I had to force myself to finish. I usually read a book in a couple of days; in this case, however, I started at the beginning of December but got so bogged down within the first 20% (after three days) that I abandoned it until late March, taking another three days to finish a not particularly long 352 pages. When Nafisi focused on the three American novels she selected, she had some insightful observations, which earned her two stars. The interpolation of memoir, however, was so fragmented and distracting that I actually was several chapters into the Twain section before I realized I had left the introduction. I could have done without Nafisi's tirades against American consumerism and the Common Core entirely. Nafisi's editor apparently rejected her plan to include a section on James Baldwin; she states that in September, 2013, she was "thinking of what [she] had taken to calling '[her] Baldwin chapter,'" to which "[her] editor would only say, 'Let's see.'" Accordingly, Nafisi disingenuously concludes The Republic of the Imagination with an "epilogue" which is not an epilogue in the true sense of a comment on or conclusion to the preceding work; it is, in fact, an independent discussion of Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain with some superficial comparisons to Twain thrown in for show. Strangely, despite my irritation at being introduced to a new work in the purported epilogue, I found Nafisi's discussion of Baldwin in the context of America's current hysteria over race relations and trigger warnings to be the most interesting and thought-provoking section of the book. I only wish the previous sections had been as relevant to Nafisi's stated purpose of exploring "America in Three Books." I received a free copy of The Republic of the Imagination: America in Three Books through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
From the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran comes a mind-expanding followup called The Republic of Imagination. The idea for the book is the result of a question about whether Americans appreciate their fiction and spirals into an analysis of three American classics and their impact on our democratic ideals. The driving argument through the book is that to appreciate fiction requires imagination, which is also important for a successful democracy, therefore fiction is good for democracy. The book is fairly complex and delves into a lot of detailed analyses about what it means to be an American (we love to consume and collectively pursue individualism), why democracy is so powerful (tyrants recognize this), and how fiction allows us to view the world with fresh eyes. She does so through the dissection of three American novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is the Lonely Hunter. Now, I admit, before reading this book I had only read Huck Finn, and that was years ago, so I probably missed out on the full magnitude of what this book has to offer. That said, I don’t feel like I missed anything. Nafisi does such a great job of quoting from the referenced books and describing their implications in terms of democracy that each analysis is like a separate story in itself with its own beginning, middle, and end. It did, however, inspire me to read Babbitt, and my review of that is coming next week and I can look back on The Republic of Imagination with more insight regarding those portions of the book. If you’re a fan of books about democracy or enjoyed Nafisi’s last book, definitely pick this one up. It’s a great follow-up to Reading Lolita in Tehran and offers a unique perspective on the importance of fiction, which every book lover will appreciate. Allison @ The Book Wheel
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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