Friday, July 26, 2013

Review of READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN: A Memoir in Books

In my past few What’s Up Wednesday posts, I’ve written about a book called READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN. I read it slowly, underlining important passages and trying to grasp the author’s meaning. I finished it last week and am SO ready to talk about it!

From GoodReads: Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi's living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.

Iran’s history has always been fuzzy in my mind. I never learned about it in school (looking back, I wish I had), and all I knew about were the veils. After reading this, I feel much more knowledgeable of the regime that pulled Iran back into the past, taking away many freedoms, especially those of women. The government even went so far as to “outlaw certain gestures and expressions of emotions, including love…Later women were banned from singing, because a woman’s voice, like her hair, was sexually provocative and should be kept hidden” (108). READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN is full of these tidbits, reminding us that the freedoms we take for granted are not available to everyone.

The book is split into four parts: Lolita, Gatsby, James (Henry James), and Austen. Since the sub-heading for this book is “A Memoir in Books,” it makes sense that each section applies it’s book/author to the events in Iran at the time. Naturally, Gatsby was my favorite section (I have such a thing for that book). Azar Nafisi teaches the book in one of her classes at the University of Tehran. Many of her students reacted negatively to it, insisting that Fitzgerald was trying to corrupt readers with this story of wealth and adultery. Nafisi decided the class would put the book on trial, with a student judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. Nafisi herself represented the book.
The Gatsby trial was my favorite part because it added a new level to a book I knew well. It made me feel like I was back in a classroom, taking notes in a college literature class (two months after graduation and I’m already missing learning!). Nafisi’s defense of Gatsby aligns with mine, that is not about adultery like many of the Islamic revolutionaries insisted, but the loss of dreams. But Nafisi takes THE GREAT GATSBY to a new level, connecting it to Iran’s situation at the time. She says, “What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality…impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven” (144).

At the end of one of the chapters, she remarks “…how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?” (144) The entire book is rich with questions and observations like this, and even though I didn’t always know the answers, I felt smarter after reading it. I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in the censorship issue, classic literature, or learning what other people have to go through to read the books they love.  


  1. Sounds like a very interesting book. I love memoirs and right now I'm reading “One American Woman Fifty Italian Men” by Lynne Ashdown, I'm definitely going to look in to "Reading Lolita in Tehran". Thanks so much for the post and review!

    1. Glad the review was helpful! I definitely recommend reading it. :) "One American Woman, Fifty Italian Men" sounds super interesting, too, I just looked it up!


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