In her surprise 2003 bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iranian emigré Azar Nafisi made clear why fiction matters in totalitarian regimes. With The Republic of Imagination, she seeks to demonstrate the importance of great literature even in a democratic society, one threatened not by fundamentalist revolutionaries but by the danger of "intellectual indolence."
Nafisi is alarmed by the marginalization of the humanities and book culture she sees in America today, and her goal is to show that "books matter, that they open up a window into a more meaningful life, that they enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own."
Her impassioned defense of literature blends memoir with literary and cultural criticism, including her astute objections to the Common Core curriculum and its emphasis on teaching to tests and job-preparedness rather than imagination and thought. But there's an underlying paradox with this book: Nafisi is preaching to the choir. Who is most likely to read The Republic of Imagination and take it to heart? Passionate readers!
That said, she effectively urges us to raise our voices and sing literature's praises more robustly. By inviting readers into her "true home, a land with no borders and few restrictions which I have taken to calling 'the Republic of Imagination,'" a place to which the "only requirements for entry are an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane," Nafisi reminds even the faithful about what's at stake and why we should care.
Nafisi first learned about America through its literature, which she has taught for more than three decades in both Iran and, since emigrating in 1997, at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "America, to my mind, cannot be separated from its fiction," she writes.
In smart discussions of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, and Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Nafisi flags what she sees as important aspects of the national character reflected in so many American literary protagonists — lonely wanderers and individualists who highlight "this constant restlessness, this unending questioning, this battle between the desire for prosperity, status and success and the urge to walk away from it all, to be wary of complacency."
While most readers will be familiar with Huck Finn, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, "featuring an anti-Huck who craves status and acceptance and all the outward signs of material success," is not so frequently read today. Nafisi's analysis sent me back to Lewis (America's first Nobel Prize-winner in literature); more than 90 years after its 1922 publication, Babbitt's scathing portrait of crass materialism and what she calls "the commodification of our souls" is still astonishingly relevant.
Nafisi's enthusiasm is both part of her book's charm and its problem. All writing involves selection, and her difficulties narrowing her focus, wrangling her material, and producing a worthy followup to Reading Lolita in Tehran under increased time pressure are everywhere apparent. Her original plan, she tells us, was to include 24 books, which she's reluctantly whittled to just three, though her discussion happily encompasses many more.
In her strong epilogue on James Baldwin, she makes clear what she admires about him: "One of his greatest artistic achievements was to seamlessly weave together the private and the public, the personal and the political and the social." This is, in fact, what Nafisi did so well in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and in this followup, she describes her decision to add heart to her essay on Huck Finn by interweaving personal material.
But the stories about her dear friend and fellow émigré Farah never quite meld with her discussion of Mark Twain, and they certainly don't match the impact of her own experiences living and teaching in a repressive regime, as recounted in her earlier book. Even more awkward and disjointed are her attempts to connect Carson McCullers's misfits with an outsider activist she met as a student at the University of Oklahoma in the 1970s.
The Republic of Imagination is at its best with Nafisi's vociferous arguments for the importance of literature. She reminds us that the best literature, far from useless, irrelevant or "aspirin for the soul," is challenging, complex and potentially disturbing. Lamenting "sugarcoated stories with happy endings" and the "nonsense" of vetting books to provide warnings for anything that might be upsetting, she asks, "How will we ever face trauma if we cannot bear to read or write about it?"