Book Review of “Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times” by Azar Nafisi

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Azar Nafisi’s “Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times” takes the form of five letters to the author’s deceased father. They were put together during Trump’s presidency when the pandemic and George Floyd’s killings troubled both the political body and individual psyche of the United States. The letters are thoughts on the role of humanities books in places torn by conflict and polarization; but they also draw, through flashbacks to Nafisi’s native Iran, disturbing connections between the totalitarian state from her birth and the contemporary America she has adopted as a naturalized American citizen.

Taking this approach, Nafisi pays tribute to two authors she offers as models in the book, her sixth. James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates both tackled the tireless trauma of racism in America through the literary arrangement of letters – Baldwin to his nephew, Coates to his son. Their warnings and their hopes were shaped as victims for the next generation. Nafisi, perhaps best known as the author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” could have followed in their footsteps and written to, for example, the two grandchildren she was expecting and who was born when she wrote “Read Dangerously.” Why does she instead address her words to her father, nearly two decades dead?

Her father was imprisoned by the Shah’s government in 1963 when he was mayor of Tehran. His crime was not to obey orders to close shops early and close hospitals to protesters during demonstrations against the arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then an outsider to political power. Khomeini had condemned the progressive reforms of the ruling elite, including those that gave women the right to vote. Nafisi’s father was jailed for four years because he insisted on fair and humane treatment of people he disagreed with. From father to daughter, there is a clear line in the moral and intellectual obligation to see the humanity of the enemy. “Read dangerously” – criticism, memories and argumentation as well as correspondence to a lost loved one – confirms that lineage.

To build his (an old) thesis that reading literature increases our capacity for empathy, even and perhaps especially for our enemies, Nafisi begins by setting up a classic confrontation: between oppressive power and those who speak the truth to it through the exercise of imagination.

She often and deftly alternates tracks between autobiography and literary analysis and uses her experience and reading of three books to question the nature of this endless conflict between the poet and the tyrant. She remembers how, as a college student in Oklahoma, she debated Plato’s “Republic,” in which philosopher-kings banished poets from their ideal society with a conservative American fellow student, a fan of the banishment. They disagreed, but respectfully and over many nice coffees. She also remembers that as a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s, she witnessed Khomeini’s infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the sins committed in his novel.The satanic verses. “The” poet “had written a battered, high-speed book on migration and the changes in national and personal identity that it catalyzes. The tyrannical priest had only seen blasphemous representations of the Prophet Muhammad in it. state that bans books and promotes the burning of them – the fictional, futuristic America that Ray Bradbury created in “Fahrenheit 451” – and she does this in a way that complicates our understanding of who the tyrant is.

After moving from the thought experiment on Plato’s republic to the real tyranny of the ayatollah’s regime to a dystopian America, as Bradbury envisioned in 1953, Nafisi draws parallels between each and every America that led to the election of Donald Trump and still exists. after his loss of official power. Here she repeats admonitions from her previous work: Democracies, too, can develop totalitarian traits and be seduced by totalitarian figures. “Whatever we call this figure,” she writes, “whether ‘philosopher-king’, ‘supreme leader’, ‘führer’, ‘father of the nation’ or ‘Mr President, we’re talking about the same thing.

She pushes beyond state power and also asks sharp questions about the intolerance of individuals. Her observations involve both supporters of Make America Great Again and their political enemies. She raises alarms about the alienating effects of technology as well as ideology, united twins that prevent us from seeing the full humanity of those with whom we disagree. “It’s easy,” she remarks, “to become the tyrant’s carbon copy, to speak and behave like him and dehumanize your opponent.” She stops lamenting cancellation culture or wired brains, and nevertheless warns on the edge of a stuffy emotion: “When we stop reading, we pave the way for book burning;… when we prefer personality over character, and reality show or virtual reality rather than reality itself, then we get the kind of politicians we deserve. “

The intervention she preaches is not just reading, but reading books that evade ideology and instead engage in the nuances and contradictions of individual experiences and struggle in a profound way with the understanding of the Other. She stresses that she “is not talking about resistance literature, but literature as resistance“In addition to Baldwin and Coates, her humanities curriculum includes other writers committed to empathy for the ‘enemy’: Margaret Atwood, Zora Neale Hurston, David Grossman, Elliot Ackerman and Elias Khoury.

So what does it mean to read dangerously? It means reading to know the Other and to dismantle the tyrannies within ourselves. Nafisi suggests that it also means striving beyond cultural chauvinism. She tells us that for a brilliant young woman, her former student at a women’s university in Tehran, who was later executed by the Islamic Republic, reading meant dangerously falling in love with Henry James’ novels. For Baldwin, it meant embracing Shakespeare, both to struggle with the distance and to discover the intimacy of his English, as a black writer in America who had inherited the language through the violent expulsions of the transatlantic slave trade.

In a recent interview, Nafisi said she first composed “Read Dangerously” as a series of letters to great writers, but rejected the result as stilted. Writing to his father solved the problem. After all, she and her father had exchanged countless letters when she studied in the United States in the 1970s and when she later immigrated here. In prison, he addressed his diaries to her, even though she was only a child.

This book reciprocates the rhetorical gesture with a natural, intimate voice. Apart from stylistic and affective reasons, writing to his late father reinforces the mood of Nafisi’s book, which turns to the power and example of the brave past and to a tradition of great books as comfort and guide. With sensitivity and intelligence, it offers a new canon for today’s tyranny and the dystopian possibilities of the future.

Gaiutra Bahadur, Associate Professor of Journalism at Rutgers University in Newark, is the author of “Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. “

The undermining power of literature in turbulent times

Dey Street. 221 pp. $ 26.99

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