“We read to know we are not alone.”
–C.S Lewis in Shadowlands
When impressing upon anyone the value of literature, the truth spoke by Lewis exists at the heart of what makes reading such an intricate and beautiful part of the human experience. Some have argued reading and literature yield no practical useful results. It is not like science or math that can boast a result of engineering, medical breakthroughs and technology. No, the value of literature is much more subtle, but it’s there. A book that exhibits for me the importance of literature more then any other book I have had the pleasure of reading is Reading Lolita in Tehran, the memoir of Azar Nafisi.
Nafisi is an Iranian woman, a former professor at the University of Tehran, and lover of literature. The memoir chronicles her life in Iran as a professor and the book club she holds with seven of her brightest female students. The women would meet every week to discuss Western literature considered inappropriate by many of the university’s professors. So much so The Great Gatsby is put on trial at the university, with Nafisi speaking as its sole defendant. The memoir itself is divided into four different parts, “Lolita”, “Gatsby”, “James”, and “Austen,” each one referring to an author or work particularly significant for each stage of Nafisi’s life and reflecting various frustrations and themes pertaining directly to the occurrences in Iran.
Each work of literature brings for Nafisi and her female students an escape from the strangling oppression they face as women on a daily basis. The life the women describe in Tehran is much like life in a cage, of feeling surrounded on all sides, and the books help free them from these cages, if only for a little while. Nafisi and her students find they are able to connect to women and people from all over the world and from all different societies through the books. The books also allow them to observe their circumstances and Iran through an alternative lens.
For Nafisi and her seven students, books are not just something to enjoy in their spare time. For these women, books are life rafts keeping them afloat in tumultuous and stormy times.
Herein lies the beauty of literature — it allows us to escape our own lives but forces us at the same time to reflect on ourselves. It simultaneously takes us out and brings us in. It allows us to understand, interact with, cry with, laugh with and love people who we otherwise would never have a chance to know. It develops in us empathy and understanding for people we will never have the chance to meet. In a way, literature allows us the chance to experience things that could not be contained in just one lifetime, and it leaves us with the comforting affirmation that we are, in fact, not alone.