Why Literature Matters When It’s Somewhere Else
Reading has always been double-edged. One of the first things we learn how to do, it is bound up with our relations to the institutions that mark our lives: family, school, a well-paying job. It is also one of the few things we do alone and for ourselves. It’s an acknowledged pleasure but the most complex of pleasures. Motives for reading may be as high or as low as any human action and can be qualified in myriad ways: we read for pleasure or power, to escape, to impress, to master, to have our security violated, to impose our will silently, to justify ourselves to ourselves or to be shaken, to find consolation for the injustice of the world in a story where virtue is rewarded. We may read with jaded distance or with too much closeness.
All these motives need to be taken into account when we consider the popularity of a book. Publishers do market research but we can never be sure what raises a book onto the best-seller lists. There are reasons to be suspicious of what people tell an interviewer, or reply to a survey when they are asked to rank their preferences rationally. If we can fool ourselves about how we read and why, why not fool others? Consider, as a case study, the phenomenon of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Last year, everyone seemed to be reading it. Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her years as an English professor in Iran describes the contraband culture of American literature that existed among a dwindling group of middle-class and educated Iranian women during the mid-nineties. Slowly driven from the universities by a bizarre array of disciplinary measures, teacher and students met discreetly to discuss Lolita, Daisy Miller, The Great Gatsby, and other novels they had first studied in courses and then reread in xeroxed pamphlets (imports of foreign books were forbidden). Around pastries and coffee, shedding their veils and shapeless black clothes, they worried that their sessions might be reported to the police or that their parents, brothers, or husbands might disapprove and confine them to the house.
There are obvious reasons why a large number of Americans ought to be interested in such a tale. It confirms our sense of the importance of American culture to those who suffer from tyranny abroad. Our feelings of patriotism are aroused. One can imagine a high school course in which the teacher believes it his duty to impart a lesson about modern American civic values through Reading Lolita. Women who here might be corporate lawyers, teachers, or musicians are, in Iran, confined to their homes and their minds. This is injustice. There should be no accommodation with the Iranian regime. It is part of the book’s function to arouse this feeling in its non-Iranian readers. Although Nafisi does not insist on Nabokov as an anti-communist author, her choice of him solidifes the tenuous mental connections between our fight against the Soviet Union and our current two-front battle against both Sunni and Shiite theocracy. Reading Lolita becomes a kind of Darkness at Noon or 1984 for our time.
A memoir is not propaganda, however. We can imagine a better course, taught at the college level, which takes the book as a document and object of interest for the burgeoning field of transnational studies. “Transnationalism,” like globalization, implies a dissolution of national boundaries as the context in which literary meanings and judgments of value can be made. Ideally, the field of transnational studies serves as a corrective to the influence of the old blood-and-soil nationalists who founded most literature departments. In its best form, it can teach us about hidden influences. Did you know that medieval French poetry is actually a mix of Provençal and Bedouin love lyric imported by ninth-century Moorish invaders and further strengthened by cross-cultural encounters during the Crusades? But not everyone has the language skills and background for such work. As a result, most transnationalists study the uses of English and American literature in other non-English-speaking cultures. For these people, a memoir about Iranian women reading Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and Henry James will be a key text in the years to come.