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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more In Defense of Fiction
Azar Nafisi first reinvigorated our understanding of why fiction matters in the surprise best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), a bracing chronicle of the risks she took to meet secretly with a group of women students to discuss Western novels forbidden in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now, in The Republic of Imagination, the mirror-image of her first book, she explores the influence fiction has had on life in America, where literature, while not outlawed, is endangered.
Nafisi, who became an American citizen in 2008, decries the closing of bookstores and libraries and the devaluing of “imagination and thought.” Her opening tribute to the power of literature segues into revelatory close readings of the three novels she selected, after much deliberation, as salient expressions of the American spirit, specifically our restlessness, “unending questioning,” and perpetual sense of outsiderness.
In her perceptive response to Mark Twain’s radically original novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Nafisi lauds his sly yet staggering condemnation of slavery and the massive failure of human decency and social conscience that made such a monstrous institution possible. She also recognizes Huck’s flight from “smothery houses” and the threat of being “sivilized” as the wellspring for subsequent works of American fiction engaged with taking measure of the divide between American ideals and reality.
Nafisi is downright gleeful in her expansive reading of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922). America’s “first novel of anxiety,” Babbitt savages America’s fervor for commerce. For Lewis’ now iconic protagonist, George Babbitt, a quintessentially American “self-made man” and conformist, business is a religion. Babbitt is scornful of the literature courses his son is required to take, a viewpoint Nafisi parlays into a vigorous protest against public education, which she feels gives fiction short shrift. Our schools, Nafisi writes, are being “Babbittized, with learning increasingly seen as a means to an end, a vehicle for job creation.” Learning is about how to “live a full and meaningful live,” she asserts. “Students are more than future employees.”
Nafisi interprets Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) as a pivotal novel about peculiarly American forms of “urban loneliness” and “inner isolation.” Nafisi pays particular attention to how McCullers’ characters—a deaf-mute man, a 13-year-old girl, an African American doctor, an alcoholic labor agitator, and a restaurant owner—“are oppressed by their inability to connect, to express the inner urges that consume them. This crippling inability can lead to violence”—such as mass shootings.
Iranian- American Nafisi found her “true home” in the Republic of Imagination, “a land with no borders and few restrictions, . . . the only requirements for entry are an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane.” As envoy from that realm, Nafisi urges us to read widely and inquisitively because books “enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own.”
In So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (a take on the novel’s last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”), Maureen Corrigan—book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, critic-in-residence at Georgetown University, and author of Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading (2005)—attempts to fathom the perpetual fascination of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “inexhaustible” 1925 masterpiece. A slim yet saturated and gorgeously written book in which every element resonates, it is “our Greatest American Novel” and a book Corrigan unabashedly loves.
Corrigan’s immersion in Fitzgerald’s novel inspires a dazzling literary appraisal of his assiduously polished, innovatively “modern and urban” language with its “hard-boiled” tone. And the word immersion is apt, given all the water imagery Corrigan highlights. She also quotes a letter from Fitzgerald to his daughter with the line: “All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.”
Like Nafisi, Corrigan pinpoints restlessness as a quintessential American quality, one she perceives in Fitzgerald’s knowing depiction of New York City, the great mecca for dreamers with its promise of freedom, new identities, success, and “unsentimental sex.” She explains why she considers The Great Gatsby to be “America’s greatest novel about class,” longing, and the myth of self-reinvention; she marvels over its almost eerie “predictive quality,” and makes sure we appreciate the novel’s overlooked humor, intricate patterns, and density of symbols.
Corrigan’s literary and biographical research was as intrepid as her analysis is ardent and expert, and she brings fact, thought, feelings, and personal experiences together in a buoyant, illuminating, and affecting narrative about one depthless novel, the transforming art of reading, and the endless tides that tumble together life and literature.
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