I read Reading Lolita in Tehran over eight years ago and loved it. I recognized the immense privilege I’ve had to read an array of literature without fear of arrest or persecution. I began to appreciate the power of a good book. I was excited to hear that Nafisi had a new book about the power of imagination in American fiction. And what a disappointment it turned out to be.
The Republic of Imagination hinges on the argument that America is no longer the republic of imagination that it once was, that we have lost sight of the beauty and depth literature offers to our society (as a college instructor, I agree with this premise, by the way, and see its effects in my classrooms day in and out). Nafisi uses three novels as exemplars: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Her coda looks at the works of James Baldwin and the subtle rebellions he offers in his literature.
I’d like to start by airing out my biggest grievance. Nafisi uses her Babbitt chapter to decry the changes wrought to American education through a detailed explication of the Common Core curriculum initiatives in public schools. Look, for the record, I agree with her. Common Core has many, many problems to iron out, and it does not necessarily produce quality education or innovative minds. That said, I felt preached at and talked down to. As a fellow college teacher, I do not interact with Common Core, but I see its effects in my classroom. I am married to a high school English teacher, who has dealt with Common Core, even at his private school. Don’t preach the evils of Common Core to me–tell me how to work around it in my classroom! This is just one example where Nafisi gets political when she could have been practical. The Chancellor has reviewed the works of Kelly Gallagher and Donalyn Miller, to give teachers tips and inspiration. Why doesn’t Nafisi invoke them? And for that matter, the kind of individual who is likely to read this book (and I realize I’m making a generalization here) is going to either know all about Common Core and/or agree with Nafisi on Common Core. So I feel that this polemic belongs in a different venue to reach the audience she wants to be transformed by her ideas.
Now, to my petty complaint. I feel that Nafisi’s selections also weakened her argument. For example: is Huck Finn the American novel upon which we should hang our hats? See, I argue no (I also have a major bone to pick with Mark Twain, and I think his brilliance is overrated, but I also think his criticism of Jane Austen is cruel, ignorant, and unwarranted). Also: if Nafisi had read past 1960, she would have discovered that authors are making the point she is making. Like, a lot. Don DeLillo, for example, satirizes the kind of consumerism she discusses at length in Babbitt. So does Bobbie Ann Mason in In Country. Or, for that matter, Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho. Why not mention these books? I also had an LOL moment where in her epilogue, Nafisi earnestly declares that she was “discovering” new authors like Ann Patchett and Jeffery Eugenides. Oh, boy. I rolled my eyes just a little (but I’m also a 20th and 21st century specialist. I get a little snobbish).
Overall: interesting ideas, poor execution for me.