Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: The Republic of Imagination

16. The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi, author of the classic Reading Lolita in Tehran, turns her attention to her adopted country's relationship with literature. In Reading Lolita, Nafisi and her students escape the oppression of their circumstances through defiantly reading American literature. In Imagination, she belies the claim that because Americans have not experienced oppression, we do not appreciate our own literature. She defends the importance of literature, of the realm of thought that she dubs "the Republic of Imagination," which, she insists, is the true locus of our ability to innovate and to remain free.

What is characteristic of both Nafisi's memoirs-in-books, and what sets them apart from the many books that have aped the concept since Reading Lolita came out in 2003, is that while she is not afraid to relate her personal reactions to books, she also provides analytical close readings that bring readers face-to-face with the text. Too many of these other memoirs focus on the personal over the academic, but Nafisi manages to do both in a way that neither looks down on nor bores the popular reader.

Imagination does not quite scale the heights of Reading Lolita, perhaps because Americans are not as interested in looking inward as looking out, or perhaps because it does not have quite the arresting imagery of the earlier book's central metaphor. That said, it is quite interesting to see America from an immigrant's perspective, especially such a keen observer as Nafisi, who writes:

All writers and poets are strangers, or pariahs, as Hannah Arendt chose to call them. They look at the world through the eyes of the outsider, but only American writers turn this attribute into a national characteristic.

Ours is a literature of outcasts, as Nafisi captures in her first of three books she discusses: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In my own estimation, Huck Finn is the essential American novel, and Nafisi gets that Huck's constant suspicion and need for independence are characteristic not only of American literature, but of the American ethos. Indeed, it's unclear which created the other. So, it's no wonder that in our constant outward search (orgiastic rowing into the past notwithstanding), we find it easier to read about others than about ourselves.

The heart of Nafisi's book is the section on Babbitt, which I confess I have not read, though it's now on my list. Here, Nafisi finds her best comparison for the state of American education and intellectualism today. Babbitt is Huck's antithesis, and yet through his conformist ways, we see what we do not want to become. The sections on McCullers and Baldwin emphasize the theme of the lonely, independent American spirit.

Nafisi believes that literature is, by its nature, revolutionary, that this republic of imagination is the last refuge of independent selfhood. Our ability to remain independent is a direct result of our ability to imagine. We cannot solve our problems if we cannot first imagine the solutions; science and technology, literature and poetry, are inextricably linked. Nafisi quotes Robert Wilson, founder of Fermilab:

It has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.

Recommended to all who loved Reading Lolita, to defenders of literature and education, and to lovers of learning of all kinds.

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