One of my earliest memories of Moscow is of riding the subway during my first visit to the country of my parents’ birth when I was 8 years old. I was mesmerized by the efficiency and horrified by the smells. (Russians never seemed to wear deodorant, even on crowded trains.) The other thing I noticed was that almost everyone was reading something: a faded paperback, a tattered newspaper, or a hardcover that looked like serious literature. I’d never seen this many people reading books in my hometown of Los Angeles, but in Russia, I saw it everywhere I went. Reading seemed like a cultural pastime.
Is it inevitable that people who have lived under totalitarianism will love and need literature more desperately than those who have not? Is imaginative writing a more urgent form of escape in places with regimes of strict cultural control?
Local author Azar Nafisi’s newest book, The Republic of Imagination, begins with the story of a young Iranian man who approaches her at a book signing to tell her that Americans will never care about books as much as those who “brace censorship, jail, and torture to gain access” to them. Nafisi, best known for Reading Lolita in Tehran, wants to prove this young man wrong. But in doing so, she undermines her own point.
Her new book is an attempt to bring American fiction “back” to America, to a readership that Nafisi perceives as uninterested in books, disconnected from community, tech-obsessed, and narcissistic. In the face of what she calls our “current assault on literature,” we need books to wake an indifferent populace and restore our democracy.
But much of her writing about our American cultural moment feels like an overstated rant. She does herself a disservice: Literature’s urgency shouldn’t be painted only in response to violence or indifference. If she’s right about the power of imaginative writing, then literature can speak for itself.
The Republic of Imagination is most potent and successful when Nafisi lets books do just that. She takes a close and personal look at major works by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Carson McCullers, and James Baldwin and weaves together stories of her life and friendships with critical examinations of the authors and their impacts on literature in America and abroad.
Nafisi focuses on these writers to illuminate what she sees as the enduring legacy of Mark Twain. She credits The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the other authors’ choice to write about freaks, outsiders, loners, and exiles. Huck and Tom’s trajectory is a very American one, she writes, in which their “failure to cope with…society, to follow its rules and become successful in a conventional fashion, is their biggest achievement.”
While honoring the characters’ restlessness as particularly American, Nafisi also sees this impulse as leading to a dangerous brand of loneliness and isolation. Nafisi’s own son was at Virginia Tech during the 2007 campus shootings, and she wondered: “Our children had survived a revolution and a war [in Iran]—but would my son survive the violence unleashed by this lonely and disturbed outcast in a small, peaceful American town?” In the face of this kind of unimaginable violence, she says, we need books to feel our shared humanity.
But it doesn’t have to be that urgent. There will always be book lovers, and anyone anywhere can rise to literature’s imaginative space. Knowing that my parents passed books around in samizdat form decades before I was born certainly makes me wonder if literature is necessarily more precious or fragile in some countries. And yet I know that regardless of dramatic circumstances, literature is a republic that exists in all places, in all times, for all of humanity.
Azar Nafisi speaks at the National Press Club on Nov. 18.