Even though I’ve done research into reading groups, until recently I hadn’t read Azar Nafisi’s best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran. While it’s not an academic source for me to cite, it does confirm what the research has found. Simply put, reading is a social activity. We might read a book in a room or on public transport in our own little worlds, but then we talk about books and we integrate our experience of books into our social lives.
Reading Lolita in Tehran uses the reading group, along with classrooms of university students, as vehicles to describe how the revolution in Iran has affected its people, especially its women. It details stories of injustice and oppression in the lives of Nafisi, her students and colleagues, taking readers through the uprisings against the West and the Iran-Iraq war to the post-war period followed by the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the attempts at liberalising that continue today. (Bearing in mind, the book was published in 2003.)
The reverence for literature permeates throughout this memoir. Along with Lolita, the author covers Daisy Miller, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice, showing how she and her students reacted to these works. In her own responses, Nafisi provides some passages of literary criticism of the type that reminded me of my years of teaching literature to undergraduates.
I’m glad that I’ve finally caught up with Reading Lolita and hope to find other such books obviously written for Western audiences that contribute to understanding the Middle East in a modern context.