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August 13, 2004

Azar Nafisi at the Atlanta History Center

Attended a lecture Tuesday night given by Ms. Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. It was fairly broad in scope, for a more general audience. (She had given a lecture to the NY chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. I'm sorry to have missed that, as it was said to have been quite good.)

Some of her points (paraphrased): Reading allows us to participate in the "republic of the imagination." The importance of being curious, of seeking knowledge through reading - Alice in Wonderland being an excellent example of literary criticism, of how to be a curious reader. Literature, words as a vehicle for memory. How we crave the things or experiences we are denied - moreover, we desire those things which represent the highest achievements of humanity, particularly when we are most deprived of our humanity. So reading and meeting in secret to discuss Nabokov, Henry James, and Jane Austen, among other authors, was a way of remaining in touch with the world outside, of keeping one's spirits alive. Culture isn't what the state dictates - it is what people think, the books they read, the movies they see, the films they watch, the music they listen to, the discussions they have - even if these things must be done in secret and at great peril.

Nafisi meant high culture when she refers to "culture" - at one point she made a small dig at the Da Vinci Code, which was a somewhat risky move given that the book is such a bestseller here in the U.S. Her point was that reading is not, should not be, mere escapism or entertainment. Reading is a way to step outside of oneself, to explore other ways of seeing the world, even (perhaps especially) when doing so puts you, as a reader, at the risk of being uncomfortable. Reading is a way to fulfill and yet encourage the exploration for knowledge. On the drive home we talked about this - reading is escapism if you get exactly what you expected or wanted out of the book. I read Da Vinci Code and it was diverting, but no more - in other words, about what I expected to get out of it. I read it for my book group, and we had selected it because we just wanted something fun and not too difficult to get into over the holidays.

The lecture was around an hour, with a brief Q&A afterwards. I would have liked to hear more specific discussion about works of literature, but this wasn't the right opportunity for that. I was especially pleased, and surprised, to see the images Nafisi talks about in her book. Towards the end of the lecture, on the screen behind her appeared the two pictures of "her girls" - first wearing the black veils and robes that were necessary to wear out in public, and then the image of the young women in the clothes hidden beneath all that black fabric. Some of the women still wore their headscarves, because that was a reflection of their religious devotion, but they were different scarves, of their own choosing - not regulation, apparently. Such a contrast between two realities - in one image, a sober, anonymous group; in the next, smiling, relaxed, distinctive individuals.

Afterwards there was a line for getting our books signed. A camera crew went around getting soundbites from the crowd; fortunately we were able to demur. When I got up to the table, I could have said how much I enjoyed her book and the lecture, how I wish I could have attended her talk on Jane Austen, how I had gotten my book club to read her book and we enjoyed it very much - but no, my mind went blank and I just said "Thank you."

Yours, &c., LC | 02:59 PM | Writing & Language | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

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So bummed I couldn't go!

Posted by: mingaling at August 13, 2004 10:53 AM