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The Subversive Power of Literature

How can reading a novel become an act of political rebellion? This is one of the important questions we take up with Azar Nafisi, author of the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran. Azar’s latest book is Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times. In it, she focuses on the parallels and connections between the totalitarian mindset in Iran and totalitarian tendencies in the United States. Azar notes that tyrants and writers in both countries seek to recreate reality, tyrants by telling us that the truth is what they say it is, and writers by excavating the actual truth.

“In Iran, like all totalitarian states,” Azar says, “the regime pays too much attention to poets and writers, harassing, jailing, and even killing them. The problem in America is that too little attention is paid to them.” The solution? “Reading literature and philosophy will teach you to have an independent mindset,” Azar explains. “It teaches you to be generous towards others, to not live on hate. … One of the things that is fascinating to me about fiction is that by structure, it is democratic. … A novel is comprised of different characters from different backgrounds–gender, race, ethnicity, religion. … The plot moves forward through creating tensions within and between these characters. Even the villain, even the bad guy has a voice of his own. So fiction becomes dangerous. These two aspects of it are anti-totalitarian: its democratic structure and its search for truth.”

Azar Nafisi is the author of the multi-award-winning New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, as well as Things I've Been Silent About and The Republic of Imagination. Formerly a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Foreign Policy Institute, she's taught at Oxford and several universities in Tehran, and she's currently Centennial Fellow at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. Azar's writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Wall Street Journal.

Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times

"Nafisi moves effortlessly across the literary landscape. ... Nafisi has a talent for combining the academic and the everyday, the theoretical and the personal, and thanks to her deliberate and confident voice, the lessons will stick with us, too." — New York Times Book Review

"Makes the compelling case that books can help confront societal challenges. ... Reminds us of the power of reading." — Time

"[A] stunning look at the power of reading. ... Nafisi's prose is razor-sharp, and her analysis lands on a hopeful note. ... This excellent collection provokes and inspires at every turn." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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