Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, is one of the best books about books I’ve ever read. I was an English major, so that’s actually quite a lot. The memoir focuses on Nafisi’s career of teaching English literature in Iran, both at the university and outside of it. It explains in great detail the relationship between life and literature, but it also provides unique insight about living in Iran over the past few decades. I was beyond impressed with the book; when I picked it up, I thought it seemed interesting but nothing particularly special. I was sososo wrong. Both Nafisi’s insights about the novels she discusses and her completely open explanations of life in Iran were amazing and taught me a lot of new things.
The book is divided into four parts, each focused on a different book or author. The first section is named for Nabokov’s Lolita, but it takes in all of Nabokov’s works and a few others. Nafisi’s passion for Nabokov’s writings comes through beautifully. The first section also focuses on a class the author held in her home to discuss literature with some of her former university students. Her writing allows you to know these girls well and to start gaining some perspective about their lives.
Part 2 focuses on Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and goes back in the author’s life to explore her first teaching experiences that coincided with the shift in Iran during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a way, Nafisi explains how and why part one happened and how and why Iran changed. She extensively discusses Gatsby and how the different political opinions of her students collided with each other and the book.
The third part shifts to Henry James and the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. This section is much more focused on the war than literature, but Nafisi explains how literature got her through and how people’s opinions about books reflected their political ideas. I don’t see the shift in focus as negative; I see it as supporting the narrative’s authenticity. Reliving that time can’t have been easy, and I would have been a little shocked if literature had been more prominent in this section. Her writing and attention to detail were easily accessible and provided a wealth of information about a time and place I didn’t know much about.
The last part returns to Nafisi and her girls and discusses Jane Austen. This section was my favorite. It deals with all of the women’s views of love when it comes to both men and to Iran. Nafisi explains their different problems with loyalty to their country and how they feel about freedom. It was truly fascinating.
I loved this book. It was well written and enjoyable, and it gave me information and perspective about a different culture. It allowed me to gain more appreciation for my life and hers because she allows you to understand her life without overshadowing yours. It made me feel more connected to the world through books, and that’s really what reading is about for me.