USA Today reports that Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books — much of which focuses on the secret book club Nafisi held in her home in Tehran after losing her university job — is planning to launch an international online book discussion group.
In a world that she says has become too politicized, she wants to create a “domain of imagination that is not political. … Read Shakespeare or (Margaret) Atwood. We don’t know if they are Republicans.”
Details of her online book club are being worked out. By spring, she hopes to organize free online discussions about books and authors.
The discussions, Nafisi says, will focus on writers who initially may seem unrelated. However, they can be discussed as part of larger themes.
For example, she hopes to contrast Jon Stewart’s satirical textbook, America (the Book), with Allan Bloom’s Shakespeare on Love and Friendship, to give the rest of the world a taste of American diversity. Or, the club will compare Atwood, the Canadian novelist, with human-rights activist Samantha Power and their approaches to human rights.
A book club “is a gold mine in terms of creating ideas” and getting people to communicate, she says. That’s true both in Iran, where books that are considered subversive are banned, and in the USA, where “everything is so polarized that you have very little room for debate and understanding.”
My first reaction: it’s a great idea. One of the problems with today’s public discourse, it seems ot me, is that it is so focused on politics and political issues, including personal issues turned political — to the detriment of all the spheres of thought that deal with the vast aspects of the human condition that exist outside or beyond politics. It’s entirely possible, for instance, to read, enjoy, and derive insights from the novels of Dostoyevsky while finding his politics (which were extremely reactionary and bigoted) abhorrent — or knowing nothing about them. Sadly, too many of the institutions that should be promoting the study, understanding, and love of literature as a source of both truths and pleasures that transcend the present moment are busy politicizing it instead, with English departments as the worst culprits.
I once stumbled on a literature discussion board about a month after the 2000 election. While the board looked interesting, there were threads filled with so much anger and hatred toward Bush voters — perceived in the most stereotypical terms as ignorant bigoted rednecks — that I had no desire to stick around. (Even though I did not vote for Bush.) A woman I know who did vote for Bush, despite disagreeing with him on many issues including same-sex marriage, told me that she left another online book club for the same reason. An online book club tolerant toward political differences sounds like a great idea.
One of the things I loved about Reading Lolita in Tehran was Nafisi’s evocation — and creation — of a world in which books mattered: book, ideas, the life of the mind, the inner life created by reading. It was also a world in which people of vastly different politics and ideologies could meet, and find a common language, in literature’s realm. If Nafisi can recreate that, more power to her.
My second reaction: If Nafisi wants a nonpolitical book club, it’s odd that one of the first projects she mentions is a comparison between Margaret Atwood (who, by the way, we very definitely know is not a Republican) and Samantha Power, not a “literary” writer but a political one who has written about genocide prevention. At the same time, I like the fact that Nafisi’s vision for her book discussion groups includes popular culture (Jon Stewart) as well as “high culture.” It will be interesting to see how this one works out.