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Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Story of Love, Books and Revolution Hardcover – 25 Apr 2003

4.0 out of 5 stars 69 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 350 pages
  • Publisher: I.B.Tauris (25 April 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1860649815
  • ISBN-13: 978-1860649813
  • Product Dimensions: 13.4 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,096,857 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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, Amazon.com

Review

A passionate and thought-provoking account of reading English literature in adverse conditions.A book of extraordinary interest. -- Reviewed by Robert Irwin for the Times Literary Supplement, 4th July 2003

A remarkably original account of one woman's experience of the Iranian revolution, generously interspersed with erudite passages of literary criticism. -- Reviewed by Parviz Radji for The Times Higher Education Supplement, 19th September 2003

A story that is vivid, often heroic and sometimes funny in a ghastly way. -- Reviewed by Paul Allen for The Guardian, Saturday 13th September 2003

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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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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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By Keith VINE VOICE on 9 Sept. 2009
Format: Paperback
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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This memoir covers the years the author spent in Tehran [1979 to 1997]. She was an academic, teaching western literature, in different universities and in a private class. The latter gave the book its name.

She describes the difficulties of being a woman, especially an intelligent woman or intellectual, in this society. These are interwoven with discussions of books and authors. It has to be said that if you don’t know the books in question this will be a slog.

She asserts that the ideas in these books threatened the bigotry of the Islamic regime. Intelligent women who came to her classes – “my girls” - found solace from their oppression. Memorably, she describes how, when they came to her apartment, they discarded the veil and set out to discover and create their true selves.

It sounds like this should be a wonderful read. But it was not – as many others have noted. I will set out some of the problems.

She comes from a privileged background – privately educated in Switzerland, England and America. Her family's position was undermined when the Shah fell from power. She states clearly that Islam is incompatible with women’s rights and scoffs at those who suggest otherwise. For her all the great ideas are western.

Then, as others have noted, she exudes a personal vanity and self-regard that drained me. Throughout she declares that the Islamic Republic denies what every great novel declares – feeling and imagination, empathy and respect for the individual. Unfortunately, she does not apply her own dictum. Some of the judgements she passes on those who are not her favourites [“my girls”] are not just lacking in feeling, but cruel and nasty.

I do not dispute that the author is erudite and learned.
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