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Reading Lolita in Tehran

ISBN: 081297106X
By Azar Nafisi
Review by: Tasha Whitton


The subtitle of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is A Memoir in Books, which is an excellent description for this work of autobiography, biography, literary criticism, history, and politics. Nafisi completed a Ph.D. in English Literature from Oklahoma University in the1970s and returned to her native Iran to teach during the early years of the revolution there. She spent several years at the University of Tehran before she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil. In the 1990s, she returned to the classroom beneath the veil but could not make peace with the revolution, and in 1997 she moved to the United States with her family. Today, she teaches at Johns Hopkins University and is director of The Dialogue Project.

For her memoir in books, Nafisi begins with a private class that she taught after she had left the University of Tehran. On Thursday mornings (the equivalent of Saturday in America), Nafisi asked select former students to join her in her home for discussions of Western literature, much of which had become forbidden reading. In an author’s note before the text, Nafisi says that she has changed names and details in her story in order to protect the girls in her group. Thus, the “characters” are not as important as the atmosphere created by their tales of terror within the new political regime.

The chapters are divided by authors—Nabakov, Fitzgerald, James, Austen—but this is much more than a critique or analysis of the work, rather Nafisi and her girls talk about the way that the authors’ vision of the world may be different or similar to their own. Nafisi also spends time discussing her pedagogy in the classroom, even as explosions and demonstrations erupt daily. She identifies why she continues teaching and how she finds comfort in books while bombs fall in Tehran during the war with Iraq.

If you are looking for a book to read with a group or book club, read this book (discussion questions are included at the end). If you want to know more about the political climate in Iran, read this book. If you want to know more about literature, read this book. If you want to read of a life well-lived even amidst the most trying circumstance, Nafisi will inspire you.

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