The story centers around the book club Nafisi created after she stopped teaching at the university aimed at discussing about Western classics from authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov and Jane Austen. Because these books were forbidden under the Islamic rule, the club consisted of only carefully selected female students whom she felt were committed, and they held weekly discussions on the literary works.
This is a book that pays homage to literature, where it critically analyzed the role and value of fiction in relation to reality. For Nafisi, her reality was particularly unpalatable so much so that it felt unreal.
“I had a feeling that we were living a series of fairy tales in which all the good fairies had gone on strike, leaving us stranded in the middle of a forest not far from the wicked witch’s candy house. Sometimes we told these stories to one another to convince ourselves that they had really happened. Because only then did they become true.
In his lecture on Madame Bovary (Vladimir) Nabokov claimed that all great novels were great fairy tales. So, Nima asked, do you mean to say that both our lives and our imaginative lives are fairy tales? I smiled. Indeed, it seemed to me that at times our lives were more fictional than fiction itself.””
The most powerful part about this memoir though lies in her moving call for the awakening of the readers to reflect on what we are reading, even if it means to unsettle your conventional thinking and looking at the world through different pairs of eyes like Alice in Wonderland.
“The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home.” I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable.”
This book took me a while to get through it, but it is a remarkable story that touched my heart as a book lover and taught me to read and appreciate the wondrous worlds that literature gifted us with. If you are looking for a litmus test to check if you have been reading correctly, this is what Nafisi says:
“A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing.”