Reading Politics in Literature

I actually took notes when I read Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book contains so much information and so many thought-provoking quotes, I had to make it easy for me to find them later on. For what, I had no idea. but it seemed important. In reading this book, I felt as though I had entered a world foreign to me, but met a character in the form of the narrator who is someone familiar–a voracious reader and a teacher.

Nafisi’s memoir takes place when she, an Iranian moves back to Iran from the United States, where she attends grad school . She decides to go home at what turns out to be a time of change and danger–during the Revolution.

What starts out as a hopeful movement, becomes an authoritarian anti-Western repressive government. Nafisi witnesses the controls tightening as the abuse of power becomes more chaotic. She writes of men and women being tortured and killed, of women sexually abused and raped and blamed. The powerless are doomed.

Although she starts out teaching in the university, soon Nafisi is expelled for refusing to wear a veil. She comes back for a time, but ultimately, she resigns and takes her teaching underground. She teaches literature in her living room to female students. It’s very hush-hush as they are all in danger if discovered.

What did I learn from this book?

  1. The structure of Nafisi’s memoir is very unique. Because the book is about teaching literature, she gives the book shape by forming sections around the books they read:  “Lolita”; “Gatsby”; “James”; and “Austen.” She makes connections between the literature studied during the section and what is happening to the characters in the book and to Iran. Her clever structure is a good example of  a memoir structured thematically.
  2. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how little I knew about Iranian culture and about the Revolution. I’d seen Ayatollah Khomeini on TV often in the early 80s, and it was if a dark spirit entered the room each time he filled the screen. But this made me turn from Iran and not seek to learn more.
  3. Most importantly, Nafisi shows how naive and idealistic she and her fellow Iranian students were when the Shah was in power. They believed that revolution was necessary and would help Iran and its people. But their dream turned into a nightmare. The book shows how we have to be careful what we wish for. A promising course might not lead to freedom and happiness, but to a dangerous theocracy.

Although I ended up with  5 typed pages of valuable notes from this book, I remember one passage by rote. In the Gatsby section, a character says:

[The Great Gatsby] is an amazing book . . . . It teaches you to value your dreams but to be wary of them also, to look for integrity in unusual places. “

I’ve taken on this quote as a personal mantra.


I’m looking forward to reading Nafisi’s recent book Things I’ve Been Silent About. She lives and teaches in the United States, and this book sounds like a memoir about her childhood, growing up with parents who told her romantic stories.  This is her website.


Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

26 responses to “Reading Politics in Literature

  1. You are helping me create a summer reading list that is very long and deep. Thank you for the wonderful reviews.

    • Luanne

      Regenia, yay, that sounds great–a summer reading list! Enjoy! This book is one of the greats. It’s on a new list of great books by women (along with Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, etc.) I read yesterday.

  2. You have a way of writing reviews that makes me want to read everything, Luanne! I would love to read Nafisi’s story.
    I’m impressed that you not only took so many notes, but you typed them up as well! 🙂
    Your post reminded me, I need to read The Great Gatsby again. xo

    • Luanne

      Yes, Gatsby! Nafisi’s passion for the books she taught is exciting, reminding me that even in the face of the political turmoil and destruction of a culture that was going on around her, by studying great literature, she was able to stay focused and keep her strength of character.

  3. Ah, someone just mentioned this book to me. I think I’ll have to get a copy soon. 😉

  4. Love this book and your review! I took notes too,I keep meaning to read it again. Thanks for the link to the author!

    • Luanne

      Doesn’t the book just compel you to take notes? I don’t know what it is, but I had to be sure to remember so many things she said! Thanks, Patti xoxo.

  5. I remember listening to this book on tape when I was working in the yard one summer. I thought often of my former roommate Dokhi, who studied English and communications at MSU in 1972. She hoped to become a newscaster in Iran.

    • Luanne

      WJ, I thought I knew so much about you, but I didn’t know you had an Iranian roommate pre-revolution. I take it you didn’t stay in touch with each other? Or try to? Or did the revolution get in the way? It must be difficult to think of her youthful hopes and what might have become of them.

      • No, we did not stay in touch although I have a photo of her somewhere. On the back it says, “Don’t forget your friend Dokhi.” She referred to herself as a “Persian girl.” Back then, Persian girls who wanted to get ahead wore Western garb, and she did. It was hot in E. Lansing in the summer, so she wore knee- length skirts, sleeveless shells, sandals, and her hair long and uncovered. Yes, I wonder what became of her.

  6. I have this book sitting on the shelf. I started it once and put it down, but maybe I gave up on it too soon. I’ll give it another try and maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  7. I read this memoir many moons ago, but must revisit after your insightful review. Thanks, Luanne.

    • Luanne

      Rudri, this is one of those books that deserves another read. It’s so dense, and there is so much important information, that I’m sure I missed a lot even though I was taking notes!

  8. You’re the second person who spoke highly of it, so I guess I’ll need to add it to the list. *sigh* Too many good books, not enough time! 🙂

    • Luanne

      I sooo know that feeling! Never enough time!!! The good thing about a list, though, is once you add something you feel like you did it and the burden is lifted ;).

  9. I really feel you did your research on this book, Luanne! I think it is so cool that you typed the notes up! I have a spiral notebook at home, where I write my ‘story starters’ and also, articles I find to read and respond in my blog about. I write a lot while watching t.v. so that by the time I ‘hit’ the library, my ideas just need refining and typed into my blog. I feel you and I have similar way of thinking about things. I don’t read nearly as much as you do! The ones I feature usually are ones that I skimmed or chose the best parts, like the one with pictures, “Before I Die…” with the blackboard concept of a deserted house in a neighborhood or the one that had Lessons learned from Golden Books. I would have to be very serious if I were to be studying memoirs like you are! I am so proud to read and see how you accept this challenge to learn about them, in preparation for your own memoir! Smiles, Robin

    • Luanne

      Your notebook idea is ideal. It seems as if I haven’t read much lately. It takes me forever to read whatever it is I am reading at the time. I can’t figure out when I read all these memoirs, quite honestly! Thanks so much for your support, Robin. It means the world to me!

  10. Two summers ago I was with a friend heading back from a writers’ conference in Cape Cod. It’s a 7 hour drive and we listened to the CD Reading Lolita in Tehran almost all the way. I was entranced and when we reached home, the next day I got the book from the library and read it through. It is such an insightful book. Beautifully written.
    I love your Gatsby mantra. 🙂

  11. When I read this and recommended it, several women got very negative toward doing so, thinking how disgusted and upset they were about Lolita. However, the book changes that worry into a genuine curiosity about Iran and about Iranian women rather than focusing on Nabakov and his character’s bizarre and ugly proclivities. I actually began to have a deeper appreciation for the Nabakov book as I heard it via the people in Nafisi’s book. I admire her “stand tall” way of being in this world. Would love to hear her read/speak in person. I will definitely read her latest book.

  12. I’ve had this book on my list for a long, long time. Your review makes me eager to read it. I sometimes take notes with books (fiction and nonfiction). My brain is like a sieve. I have a difficult time retaining what I read (among other things). I’ve always had this problem so, for me, taking notes is a good way to retain, at least for a while longer, what I want to remember about what I read.

    • Luanne

      Marie, I have that problem remembering narratives and titles of movies. A complete sieve. I don’t know why! Yes, the note taking prolongs the memory–what I write down I remember better and then it just gives me something to go back to to help pull that fishing line of memory.

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