Summer reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Book cover for Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran
Azar Nafisi

In her popular book, Azar Nafisi narrates how she established intimate bonds with a group of female students who gathered at her home in Tehran to read works that were forbidden, clandestinely photocopying Nabokov’s Lolita and other prohibited works to avoid arrest. Nafisi does not understate the unimaginable repressiveness of a society where a government official inspects the hair and hands of female students for anything that could be considered the slightest cosmetic aberration before allowing them entry into the university where they are enrolled.

What’s remarkable about this book is not only how she maintains enduring relationships with this group, but how, through them, she is able to convey the massive cultural and political changes within Iran. For instance, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war is brought into awareness when a missile destroys a house about a mile from the living room where they’re discussing an American novel. They feel the reverberations of the strike.

Amazingly, Nafisi is able to connect her students’ lives to the lives described in detail in the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James — works that, on the surface, may seem to be completely “foreign,” and therefore “not relevant,” to people living in a Middle Eastern country that is on the verge of an Islamic revolution. One of the most spirited classroom discussions occurs when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is put “on trial.” Some students denounce it as a glaring example of Western literature that advocates decadence; others argue that it is a sardonic critique of upper-class American society during the Gilded Age.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is not only about how human connections can endure through time, but how literature can transcend time by connecting to readers despite their cultural differences.

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This book is part of the 2020 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!