Azar Nafisi’s unmissable love letter to books
It’s hard to believe we live in a time when books are systematically banned in the United States, removed from library shelves and sent to a place where they cannot sway impressionable young minds. Again, blocking ideas is a surefire way to stoke the totalitarian fires, and limiting access to books will always limit access to ideas as well.
To read, as Azar Nafisi explains with so much passion in his new book “Reading Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Books in Troubled Times” (Dey Street Books, 240 pp., ★★★★ of Four, Available Now), is to take steps towards freedom – freedom of thought, freedom of identity and, yes, political freedom.
“Reading does not necessarily lead to direct political action,” writes Nafisi, “but it fosters a mindset that questions and doubts; who is not satisfied with the establishment or the workbench. Fiction arouses our curiosity, and it is this curiosity, this worry, this desire to know that makes writing and reading so dangerous.
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Now based in Washington, DC, Nafisi, best known as the author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” knows a thing or two about literature and oppression. She grew up in Iran, reading and writing as a way to bolster her power and imagination against the iron fist of the Islamic Republic. His father, who shared his love of books with the young Azar, was imprisoned for denouncing the prime minister and interior minister.
“Read Dangerously” is structured as a series of letters to his late father, much like James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi coats, who share a chapter here, have written books as letters to loved ones. Nafisi’s dispatches are eloquent essays on the power of literature to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. By addressing them to someone she loves dearly, she provides a built-in layer of warmth and understanding. But she still hits hard.
Nafisi gets to the heart of the matter in the very first chapter, which looks at Salman Rushdie, a British-American novelist of Indian origin. His 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, inspired in part by the life of Muhammad, prompted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Talk about writing dangerously. “Three decades may have passed,” writes Nafisi, “but the issue at the heart of the fatwa – the hostility of tyrants to imagination and ideas – is more relevant than ever. And it is relevant not only in dictatorial societies like Iran, but also in democracies like America.
Nafisi wrote these words long before a school board in Tennessee Bans Holocaust Graphic Novel “Maus” and a state pastor hosted a good old-fashioned book burning. In the same chapter, however, she delves into Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451,” in which books exist to be burned. One could say that Nafisi is prescient, but the themes she tackles are timeless, even older than Plato’s “The Republic”, which she also tackles.
“Moments of extreme violence demand moments of extreme compassion,” writes Nafisi in his discussion of David Grossman, Elliot Ackerman, Elias Khoury and war literature. Books have a rare power to generate empathy, to connect people on a level of humanity, rather than ideology. For many, especially those who live for power, this makes books dangerous. For others, that’s what makes them magical.