By Azar Nafisi

reading-lolitaEvery week for two years, former Professor Azar Nafisi and seven handpicked female students secretly gathered in her home to discuss literature. Most of the books they read were forbidden because of their Western content, so the girls often had to read photocopied versions of the novels.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a compilation of “profiles” of Nafisi’s students, book analyses (pieced from the perspectives of the author, her students at the university, and the girls in the book group), and life in Tehran. This book is divided up into four parts: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen, based on four of the books they read within the two years. Within each section Nafisi writes of her students, Islamic life and politics and literature, threading them together with discussion and themes from that section’s book.
Nafisi compares and contrasts the lives of the girls in her group to the lives of the characters they read about. Their life under the Islamic regime very much resembles the life of young Lolita with manipulative Humbert. Nafisi writes, “The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality.”
During their meetings each week, Nafisi and the girls discussed their lives and relationships but the most important part was always books. Nafisi writes that those texts were “essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity.”
Readers come to understand how fiction informs these girls’ lives during their two years of reading literature. They were able to escape into different worlds and discuss themes and ideas apart from the turmoil of their own lives. Novels and the ideas and themes within them could no longer be taken for granted in their highly restricted society. Western classics were banned from bookstores, the classroom and even personal possession. As Americans, we take for granted freedom of speech and being able to read and write whatever we want without being censored. Reading Lolita in Tehran presents the idea that books are a precious commodity, and hopes the reader will realize the importance of the words inside these texts.
A short review cannot do justice to the craftsmanship of Nafisi’s prose. She handles her students’ lives so carefully and writes of Islamic life so realistically that readers cannot help but sympathize. Most importantly, she writes about literature with such passion that readers want to immediately run out and buy all the texts.
I believe Nafisi succeeds in doing what I hope this blog will do. She brings life to fiction and magic to reading. If Reading Lolita in Tehran does its job correctly, readers should put this book down with a renewed awe of literature and a sense of the beauty it can bring to the world.


Opened Ground

By Seamus Heaney

opened-ground2Seamus Heaney is thought to be one of the most important and prominent Irish poets in history, with poetic influences including Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wordsworth. Heaney uses his life in Northern Ireland to cultivate thought, and his resulting poetry has a tangible, natural feel that connects readers to the earth in its most basic forms. Many of Heaney’s poems are dedications to his family members and homeland. Heaney’s subject matter is grounded in his Irish upbringing. In ‘At a Potato Digging,’ Heaney looks at man’s relationship with the land—the cultivation of the potato is a way into Ireland’s social history.
Many of his poetical settings are in rural Ireland, referring back to experiences or his childhood on the family farm (also known as “Mossbawn”) in Londonderry. His heritage consists of both the traditional and the progressive: his father, clinging to the traditional Irish past, was a cattle-dealer, and his mother, moving forward into the developing future, had relatives employed in local mills.
Opened Ground
is a collection of poems from Heaney’s various volumes and an excellent introduction to the poet. The poems are accessible to even non-English majors and offer something for even those who don’t like to delve too deeply into ideas. Each time I reread this volume I am reminded that with words we not only have the power to persuade and declare, but also have a beautiful tool. Granted, we may not be able to touch the world tangibly or dig with an actual spade, but we can choose, like Heaney, to boldly pick up our pen.