Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Friday, September 14, 2012

Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Author: Azar Nafisi
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003
Source: Borrowed from my sister-in-law
Read for: Fun

Reading Lolita in Tehran is the memoir of Azar Nafisi, a college professor living in Iran who deals with the oppression of women and ideas through literature. Divided into four parts and focusing on four novels, Nafisi takes us through a private literature class held in her home after her expulsion from the university, her experiences teaching in universities in Tehran, and her experience of the war between Iran and Iraq.

First, a confession: I have not read Lolita. I tried once, and despite the beauty of the writing, I could not get past the subject material. With that said, I am familiar with the plot. Of the four novels especially highlighted in this novel, I had read two. There were also myriad other novels referenced, some of which I had read, but most of which I had not. While I'm sure my enjoyment of Reading Lolita in Tehran would have been greatly enhanced by having read all the novels mentioned, I still had a strong and positive experience with this book.

Azar Nafisi has a passionate relationship with literature, and I think that in and of itself drew me to this book. I think as readers, we enjoy reading about other readers; we like to see ourselves reflected in the books we choose. Nafisi paints her experiences through the lens of literature, which I think gives reading more meaning; she uses it as a means to interpret circumstances that seem senseless to her. Her interpretations are intelligent and beyond what I have studied -- I've only taken one literary theory class, and it was interesting to be exposed to literary theory once again. However, beyond her intelligent use of the books, a more emotional, passionate love for them is also clearly present.

The circumstances Nafisi illustrates through literature are also fascinating. While I'm interested in the Middle East, I had never read anything specifically about Iran. I never knew that there was a period of time where women experienced more freedom, before a religious revolution necessitated the scarf covering and other restrictions. The day-to-day regulations, as well as the horrors some of her students expressed, awed me. I can't imagine living my life in a constant aura of fear and uncertainty.

I enjoyed the two sections sandwiching the rest of the book about Nafisi's private class for women most in the book. I expected the entire book to be focused on these classes, and was a little disappointed when the narrative veered in a different direction, although I still greatly enjoyed the book.

The "icing on the cake" for me was Nafisi's beautiful writing. The copy wasn't my own, or else I would have dogeared and highlighted the life out of it. Instead, I had dozens of tiny slips of paper stuck into the pages I loved. Afterward, I copied out the quotes onto a Word document on my computer. Here are just two of my favorites:
My daughter, Negar, blushes every time I tell her that her particular brand of obstinacy, her passionate defense of what she considers to be justice, comes from her mother’s reading too many nineteenth-century novels when she was pregnant with her. […] Well, don’t they say that what a mother eats during her pregnancy, as well as her moods and emotions, all have an effect on the child?
 I'm curious what effect my reading will have on my child -- there has been a lot of fantasy reading going on during this pregnancy.
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. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.
 I don't think I can say much beyond that. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a beautiful book, one that will expand your desire to read and appreciate literature, as well as an eye-opener to a different culture. Highly recommended.

4.5 stars

Warnings: Violence, discussion of sexuality


  1. This book has fascinated me ever since I first heard of it. I haven't read it yet though, a bit because I hadn't read Lolita. But it's nice to know that I might still enjoy this book without having read the other.

    1. I was always drawn to this book too -- I always noticed it in bookstores before I ever decided to read it. I definitely enjoyed it without having read Lolita.


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