As an avid reader, I am convinced of the importance of books and learning through them. I love getting lost in somebody else’s story, meeting new characters, and being moved by them. I love finding that same interest in other readers. So I didn’t really need Azar Nafisi and her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, to persuade me of something I already firmly believe. But I love Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I was impressed by Nafisi’s first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, so I was curious to read what she had to say about “America in Three Books.”
As an Iranian emigrant and somebody who has taught literature in both Iran and the United States, Nafisi has the advantage of looking at American literature from different angles. If you have read Reading Lolita in Tehran, you will recognize her passion and the importance that certain books have played not only in her own life, but also in the lives of people around her. She herself is the perfect example for the point that she is making in this book: that we are called upon to use books—proof of what has been and what could be—to “open up a window into a more meaningful life, […] to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own.”
In addition to explaining why she is interpreting Huckleberry Finn as the model on which all great American literature is built, and then using Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to underscore her points, she is also telling the reader how she has come to this view.
In her discussion of Huckleberry Finn, her book becomes very personal, as it is very much tied to her friend Farah, who has since died from cancer. The two women have a lot in common: both are from Iran, both suffered under the Revolution, both became successful in the United States, and both got great satisfaction out of discussing books and bouncing ideas about them back and forth between them. (I think this is something every reader can easily relate to!) I sometimes found the jumps between her interpretation of the Huckleberry Finn and her interaction with Farah a little sudden, but I was swept along by Nafisi’s enthusiasm.
She uses Part II, which is about Babbitt, to try to explain consumerism in America and to criticize the Common Core standards currently used in the American education system. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the book. Nafisi makes valid points—how can you read and appreciate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without emotion?—but I missed some of the passion that was so evident in the first part.
In Part III, which discusses The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the book picks up again. This part is different again in that it mentions a lot of Carson McCullers’ personal experiences, her “good old-fashioned American sturdiness, giving the finger to both life and death.” The theme of this part is loneliness and the different forms it can take, which, according to Nafisi, is part of the foundation of American literature. She draws parallels to her own life and people she has met, which I found interesting.
Overall, the biographical aspect of the book prevents it from becoming pure literary interpretation, which I think broadens the appeal of this book. The tone varies considerably; sometimes it is highly personal, at other times it reads more like a lecture in the classroom. But throughout, you can feel Nafisi’s love of literature. (I can’t wait to finally read some Carson McCullers. Though I have The Ballad of Sad Café at home, I think I will start with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.)
Nafisi herself admits that it was difficult to focus on only three books, and I am sure most people will be able to come up with other books that they think could or should have been included (Nafisi herself manages to sneak in quite a bit on James Baldwin in her epilogue). I myself can think of several that would have fit in very well, and also of some that could serve as counterargument. But this is a wonderful arc to the discussion we are invited to at the beginning: read and think and question. Question the world and question yourself, explore the “other,” which is difficult to do but vital, not only for America, but for any society that “appears to give you every freedom.”
“Facts are mere skeletons, without the flesh and blood of imagination.”
*I received a review copy from the publisher through Netgalley.