Reading Lolita in Washington

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.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Reading Lolita in Washington

  1. jw

    Cathy (and others) ::

    Is it possible to have an online discussion group without anger/rudeness breaking things up?

    It seems to me that internet discussion, since it does not have the facial & body language clues of f2f discussion, always breaks down into rudeness. Plus, the anonymity of the ‘net allows people to act in ways that would be unlikely in a f2f group.

    I’ve been online for a long time: I’ve seen very few groups which do not have severe breakdown problems.

    Maybe a group using video & audio would work better?

    I do not know …

  2. Paul

    Nafisi’s book club might work ! However keeping politics out of the discusions may be a bit tricky.

  3. Darleen

    I hopw Nafisi makes it a “go”. After reading her book she seems just the person to do it.

  4. loryces

    happy new year cathy! 🙂

  5. Paul

    Read “Ex-Friends” by Norman Podhoretz – a great read and illuminating as well.

  6. Tim P

    I read Lolita in Tehran lastyear and thought it was a great book. More people should read it to gain some insight on just what type of grotesque freaks are presently ruling that country.

    That being said I think that the following quote, “domain of imagination that is not political. … Read Shakespeare or (Margaret) Atwood. We don’t know if they are Republicans,” is a not so accidental slip that pretty much gives Ms. Nafisi’s political leanings away and makes this endeavour look like a more covert political forum.

    I think that the only politics that will be removed will be any pro-Bush/republican/right/fill in the blank because you get the picture, politics.

    It will be done in a more subtle way though. Like we on the left are so much more sopisticated, educated and intelligent than those ignorant Phillistines on the right. That’s why we believe what we do, etc.

    She made no secret in her book about her leftist ideology.

    If she really meant this discussion group to be non-partisan, that comment would never have been made no matter how inadvertantly.

    And that is sad, as you have said because too much politicization has occurred of late and it would be refreshing to have non-political discussions. I suspect though that Ms. Nafisi’s site will hardly be non-political after reading that.

    Time will tell. I may well be wrong, but I doubt it.

  7. Olga

    Ms. Nafisi’s claim that we don’t know if Margaret Atwood is a Republican (who’s “we”?) is a red flag for me, too: she either hasn’t read Margaret Atwood, which doesn’t bode well if she wants to start a literary discussion by dropping names of authors with whose work she is unfamiliar, or she’s being insincere about the apolitical purity of her intentions.

  8. jw

    As for Margaret Atwood. She’s a Canadian and appears to support the NDP which is a far left socialist party. Mind you, she also controls, to a large extent, the royalties paid to Canadian authors and as such appears far right Republican to many Canadian writers.

  9. Olga

    JW said: “Mind you, she also controls, to a large extent, the royalties paid to Canadian authors and as such appears far right Republican to many Canadian writers.”

    This is very interesting. Could you please elaborate? What gives her such power? And royalties paid by whom? I’m a small publisher and I have two Canadian authors, both of whom had to look for a publisher south of the border due to lack of Cancon in their novels. Is Atwood somehow supposed to be involved in our transactions?

    Please tell me more. Feel free to e-mail me directly.

    Thank you,
    Olga Gardner

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