Book review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran“Reading Lolita in Tehran” is a memoir by author Azar Nafisi, an English Literature professor, documenting her tumultuous years teaching under the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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.”

Inhale everyone.


26 thoughts on “Book review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

  1. Phenomenal quotes that you choose. I like the idea of start breathing. I just finished reading Lolita recently and think this book will be fascinating to read because even trying to understand Nabokov from the middle-class-American stand point was difficult to grasp. So I’m sure that the thoughts of the women who read it in Tehran would be extremely moving.

    1. It was also not easy to put myself in the shoes of the women in Tehran given the oppressive environment that they faced. But I was able to sympathize with them while reading their accounts because of the powerful message that they sent across.

  2. Reminds me of how lucky I am to have millions of books available to me on the internet, and the means of acquiring them. Does anybody know of any other books that were written based on experiences in the middle east? Preferable based post 9/11.

  3. This sounds exactly like my kind of book- I will definitely pick up a copy! For anyone who’s interested in the lives of women in other cultures, Dear Zari by Zarghuna Kargar is another interesting, though sometimes quite unsettling, read.

  4. Thanks for the review. I read it some time ago and I did enjoyed it. It is a touching, amazing story. i was thinking on talking about it in my blog. You made me decide for it. 😉

  5. I did read this book sometime back and blogged the review, it’s an amazing book. It left me speechless. How the author Dr. Nafisi has woven this tale, set in a lesser known land Iran is a tribute to writing itself. In this age where people are not so much inclined to reading and where we don’t have the Austen, James, Atwood and Nobokov writing for us, Nafisi takes us pretty close to what excellent writing looks like.

  6. I read this book quite a few years back and recall being so moved by this woman and her story. As an avid reader, I agree with “the sensual experience of entering another world.” It has always been so for me.

    1. I was moved by the stories of these Iranian women for their passive resistance against patriarchal oppression. Their bravery was truly commendable and worth a mention.

    2. The best thing about reading for me is to be entering into different worlds and living the lives of others as a brief reprieve from reality, which at times can get monotonous and routine. A great escape of sorts isn’t it?

  7. Sounds like an amazing book. I’ll probably just try to get my hands on it today (yes, I really mean that). I remember the title from somwhere, but I can’t exlplain why I didn’t give it google to see what it was about. Thanks for the review!

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