We live in an age where the value of arts are constantly being questioned and doubted. As an English Literature student, I have been challenged on countless occasions as to why I’m studying a subject with such insubstantial rewards and a lack of clear career path. This is symptomatic of a decline in reading in society in general, a highly worrying trend for modern culture.
Azar Nafisi’s latest book challenges modern Western society’s increasing alienation from literature, and champions the benefits of being a citizen of The Republic of Imagination. Requirements for entry being ‘an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane’.
Nafisi is most famous for her 2003 book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which she shares her experiences of reading and teaching literature during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Given her prior success, there was always going to be pressure on this latest offering to live up to expectations. However, in contrast to the painfully authentic account of life under a totalitarian regime, The Republic of the Imagination explores the necessity of literature in a liberal and free democracy. Needless to say the subject matter isn’t quite as gripping and absorbing.
Nevertheless, Nafisi mixes her literary criticism with humanising narrative, so it never becomes too tedious or academic. The whole book centres around the comment of a fellow Iranian she met at a book signing in America, who said, ‘These people are different from us – they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things.’ In a way, he’s right. Most Westerners are more concerned about checking their Facebook feeds than reading books; and it’s largely because we live in such a free and liberal society. In a totalitarian state where the basic right of reading and writing is censored, the value of literature becomes all the more apparent. Just think of Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban for desiring an education, who has since gone on to become a Nobel Prize winning advocate for education and women’s rights.
Nafisi takes us through three American novels, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, interweaving biography and social critique along the way. She tells us about Farah, her childhood friend from Iran, who is forced to flee her home country due to her political and revolutionary attitudes. She also goes on to critique the American Common Core programme for education, designed to strip back ‘airy-fairy’ imagination and analyse literary texts through facts-based critical thinking. Despite the book firmly placing itself within an American cultural and literary context, many of the assertions Nafisi draws can be equally applied to the state of British society.
She is undoubtedly a compelling story teller, and to an extent, an astute literary critic. She pulls together so many sources, novels and a wealth of personal experience to create a broad, expansive text that is an admirable achievement. However, I feel that her weaving together of the different aspects of her narrative isn’t quite seamless. Although her literary criticism was mainly insightful and thought-provoking, it dipped in to blandness at times, and read too much like an uninspired English essay.
The Republic of Imagination will be of special interest to literature lovers and arts students, although when held up to the likes of Martha Nussbaum’s works, it doesn’t have quite the same merit. However, this is a book that should be read by all; it reaffirms the value of literature in our current complacent and passive society, it inspires a passion to read and to learn, and teaches a valuable and timeless lesson.
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