Book Review – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I didn’t read Lolita in Tehran; I read it in my dorm room. The first time I finished The Great Gatsby was while counterbalancing the washing machine’s spin cycle. I cut it close with Daisy Miller, finishing it a minute or two before the professor walked through the door. And I’ve ready Jane Austen enough times to know I’ll never tire of her.

When you read a book, you develop a relationship with it as well as with the time and place in which you read it. That is what I found most identifiable about Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Though the time and place were so very different from those in which I read the same pieces, the way she and her students interacted with the texts and applied them to their lives and circumstances was familiar. The reactions and ensuing discussions were eerily similar to the ones I witnessed and experienced. And they ground me to my past as much as they do Nafisi.

For those, myself included, who aren’t completely familiar with the events of Iran’s history during the seventies and eighties, the timeline of Nafisi’s memoir is confusing and unclear. There are many asides and rogue anecdotes that further complicate nailing down an order of events that makes sense.

But the progression of the Iranian society of Nafisi’s youth to the one that led her to question her principles and her priorities was made clear in a different way. Instead of a chronological approach, Nafisi focuses on four writers’ works and how the discussions the provoked applied to her everyday life and those of her students as well as to the position of her country in relation to the rest of the world.

It isn’t absolutely necessary to have read all of the works mentioned in the book to follow the discussion. Many of the more poignant moments captured involve no mention of the novels’ content. But, there are layers to this memoir where a familiarity with the novels proved to be helpful (more specifically, a classroom based familiarity with them).

I expected my favorite section to be the one where Jane Austen’s works were the basis (however there wasn’t quite as much discussion of the novels as I had hoped or as the previous sections had led me to anticipate). The Gatsby section took that honor. Nafisi’s approach to the dissention among her students about the novel was fun to read and, for me, struck a chord at the personal level.

Influenced by the morality policing of the revolution, Nafisi has her students put the novel on trial, allowing students to take positions as prosecution, defense, judge and jury while she played the role of defendant. Many of the points brought up by the defense against the novel were echoed decades later in my high school American Lit class during the assignment that made me realize I wanted to be an English major.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir I loved as a book lover. It was a unique approach to relating the people of one time and place to those of another that caught and held my attention. What’s better, it reminded me what it is about books that I love and shows how people can be affected and bonded through books, how they can be an inspiration and a comfort to so many in what can seem like unfathomable circumstances. A part of me wants all of my memoirs to be “in books.” There’s so much you can tell about people from what and how they read.

 

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