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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books [Paperback]

Azar Nafisi
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Feb 2004

The inspirational tale of eight women who defied the confines of life in revolutionary Iran through the joy and power of literature.

‘That room for all of us, became a place of transgression. What a wonderland it was! Sitting around the large coffee table covered with bouquets of flowers…We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.’

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Azar Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. Shy and uncomfortable at first, they soon began to open up and speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading – ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Washington Square’, ‘Daisy Miller’ and ‘Lolita’ – their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran. Nafisi’s account flashes back to the early days of the revolution when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum.

Azar Nafisi's luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women's lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, written with a startlingly original voice.

Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; New edition edition (2 Feb 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007743955
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007178483
  • ASIN: 0007178484
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 366,867 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

An inspired blend of memoir and literary criticism, Reading Lolita in Tehran is a moving testament to the power of art and its ability to change and improve people's lives. In 1995, after resigning from her job as a professor at a university in Tehran due to its repressive policies, Azar Nafisi invited seven of her best female students to attend a weekly study of great Western literature in her home. Since the books they read were officially banned by the government, the women were forced to meet in secret, often sharing photocopied pages of the illegal novels.

For two years they met to talk, share and "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color". Though most of the women were shy and intimidated at first, they soon became emboldened by the forum and used the meetings as a springboard for debating the social, cultural and political realities of living under strict Islamic rule. They discussed their harassment at the hands of "morality guards," the daily indignities of living under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime, the effects of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, love, marriage and life in general, giving readers a rare inside look at revolutionary Iran. The books were always the primary focus, however and they became "essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity", she writes.

Threaded into the memoir are trenchant discussions of the work of Vladimir Nabokov, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen and other authors who provided the women with examples of those who successfully asserted their autonomy despite great odds. The great works encouraged them to strike out against authoritarianism and repression in their own ways, both large and small: "There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom." In short, the art helped them to survive. --Shawn Carkonen, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


‘Through her tales of discussing Henry James and Nabokov over cream cakes and coffee, we get a highly unusual insight into the youth of a society about which we know little.’ Sunday Times Book of the Year

‘Anyone who has ever belonged to a book group must read this book…It is at once a celebration of the power of the novel and a cry of outrage at the reality in which these women are trapped. The Ayatollahs don’t know it, but Nafisi is one of the heroes of the Islamic Republic.’ Geraldine Brooks

‘I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafizi’s account of how she defied, and helped others to defy, radical Islam's war against women. Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflections about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the ordeals of freedom – as well as a stirring account of the pleasures and deepening of consciousness that result from an encounter with great literature and with an inspired teacher.’ Susan Sontag

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
This book will appeal most to those who want to understand what it has been like to be a Western educated and liberated woman in Iran since the Iranian revolution began against the shah. If you also enjoy English literary criticism and analysis, you will have a great treat ahead of you. If hearing about injustice and brutality upset you, you will like this book less well.
The format of this book is most unusual. I predict that you will either find the format intriguing or maddening, depending on how flexible you are in your appreciation of new styles. Professor Nafisi writes her memoir of those years in a sort of semi-diary form. The observations are filled with nuance about the people in her life, the nature of her life, her thoughts and how what's going on reflects the concerns of four novelists, Nabokov (especially through Lolita), Fitzgerald (especially through The Great Gatsby), James (especially through Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors), and Austen (especially through Pride and Prejudice). Against this literary and personal backdrop, violent events explode every few pages as the Islamic Republic is established and begins its crackdown on women and dissidents. Later, the Iran-Iraq war provides similar moments of violence.
The literary-real life nexus is related to Professor Nafisi having been an English literature professor in Tehran when the revolution began. At first, she still taught in the university. Later she resigned. Still later, she agreed to return in full Muslim regalia for women. Then, she quit again and began teaching a secret class for her most devoted students in her home.
The book opens with a lyrical description of the home teaching experience in the context of Lolita, which the group was studying.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Watch your expectations 9 Sep 2009
By Keith Lawson VINE VOICE
Firstly I must confess that I didn't finish this book. I read so far, then scanned sections later. That was because I found the book to be less about life in Iran and more of a literary review on the books of Nabokov, a writer with whom I am not familiar apart from "Lolita" 40 years ago. I have enjoyed other works about life in different cultures and harsh regimes, "The bookseller of Kabul" "Burned" and a memoir about visiting Romania during Ceacescu's reign. All were brilliant portrayals of life going on under the boot of totalitarian regimes or oppressive cultures. This book, while nicely written, is too descriptive about English Literature and not the people; I couldn't engage with it. If you are uncertain now, then try browsing it or finding abstracts to see if it is what you want in a read. To understand my taste, then read "Touching Tibet" by Naomi Ash, a book I have recommended to many and all have been grateful for that advice.
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51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I came across this book quite by chance and, have to say, that it is not the usual thing that I would choose - being more a lover of fiction and history than autobiographical works. However, the sub-title, "A memoir in books" drew in this reader for whom, like the author, books are a necessity and not a luxury. The book is extemely moving, reciting the more trivial (and therefore more personal) complaints of the oppressive regime against normal people in Iran, espcially against women. Books are a backdrop for this information, but also essential, giving strength and pathos to the things going on around the author at the time. I would like to applaud Azar Nafisi for writing this very important book. I loved it. I have brought copies for friends and lent it to anyone who would let me. It is far from the perhaps ominous or depressing title it may appear - it is uplifting and joyous. A celebration of womanhood and of literature. Thank you to the author for writing it - I am honoured to the be the first to give it five stars and only hope I persuade more people to read it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I approached this book with no preconceived ideas, being intrigued by its title (which turned out sadly to be its only asset) and by the concept of seeing life through the prism of literary works.

However, it took me a great effort of will to finish the book. This is because after the first 50 pages where the basic idea is being expounded, there is absolutely nothing new: just more anecdotes from daily life tied in to abstruse analysis of great works. The tone retains emotionally flat throughout the book and there is absolutely no character development at all. Thus, as I read the last page, I was still confused over which woman student was which....

A major source of irritation with this book is the jarringly narcissistic tone of "my girls," (a la Miss Jean Brodie), "my magician," "my Manna" and on and on. This tone of ownership and self-importance reigns supreme to the point where I said several times: Just get over yourself.

Of even greater concern is the unrelenting lack of empathy by the author for anyone except herself, whom she paradoxically characterizes as "Alice in Wonderland" and an "intellectual." Is this why the word is often used as a pejorative by native English speakers?

We are also told that the author considers herself a "revolutionary," having spent much of her time as a student in the US marching and shouting but not actually doing anything practical to help the proletarians. We are told that her thesis was even written about proletarian literature.....

The author also participates in marches in Tehran but is careful never to put herself in any real danger, usually finishing the day in a café with her favorite `cafe glace' or at home with her family enjoying a bootleg glass of wine.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good
It's very interesting and informative. I've learned so much about Iran and what women had and have to go through there. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Angry bird
3.0 out of 5 stars Women in Iran
This is a literary lovers delight. A story about a teacher who leads a small group of women to study literature in Tehran, and all the cultural issues that complicate and impact on... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Elizabeth Lee
4.0 out of 5 stars Reading Lolita in Tehran
I enjoyed this book, which I ordered for a reading group. Nonfiction,and contemporary, it discussed issues relating to women in particular, just 30 years ago when the regime in... Read more
Published on 15 April 2010 by Clare Leonard
4.0 out of 5 stars A Moving Memoir
A moving memoir about the authoress Azar and seven female students of hers. Azar was a professor at Tehran university, until resigning due to the dictatorial policies that involved... Read more
Published on 3 April 2010 by LindyLouMac
5.0 out of 5 stars How many years can some people exist before they allowed to be free?,
More than a combination of literary criticism and memoirs of living through the totalitarian ruthlessness of Islamist-ruled Iran, this book essentially examines how the author and... Read more
Published on 20 Jan 2010 by Gary Selikow
5.0 out of 5 stars The sad question in Summer 2009
Not so much a review as a leading question: one is compelled to ask, in view of the present situation in Iran, what has happened to those seven women today? Read more
Published on 18 Aug 2009 by M Oliver
2.0 out of 5 stars A missed opportunity
I read this book as a member of a book club, and interestingly all 6 of us shared extremely similar views about it. Read more
Published on 17 July 2009 by gemima777
5.0 out of 5 stars Multi-layered brilliance
So much has been written already in these reviews, I would simply like to add that the book's complex structure, which seems to cause some readers unease, is one of the most... Read more
Published on 21 April 2009 by AVW
5.0 out of 5 stars Women, Iran and Books
A book about books, about women, about a country I know little about.
The book starts off with being about a professor running a literary group for a select few female... Read more
Published on 29 Oct 2008 by soffitta1
3.0 out of 5 stars Bright Red Lipsticks Under the Veils
Azar Nafisi tells the story of her life in Iran before & after the Islamic revolution. She teaches English at the University of Tehran without wearing a veil until she's expelled... Read more
Published on 18 May 2008 by Oliver Redfern
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