I first encountered Azar Nafisi as I was preparing to move from California to Connecticut. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I read just two months before departing, Nafisi describes her own “strange” feelings before she left Tehran for the United States. Although I cannot claim a move that momentous, that difficult, her thoughts resonated deeply with me.
Her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, explores the idea that books are important because when we get a glimpse of another person’s life, we can be made to feel connected to their emotions and experiences, and gain a new perspective on our own lives. Her new work emphasizes the importance of fiction in a country where many have begun to deem it a frivolous luxury or useless exercise, through the perspectives of three novels: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
We spoke over the phone, I from my home in rural Connecticut, she at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston, S.C., on her book tour.
The Millions: I wanted to ask you a few questions about what you’ve learned as a writer and a reader, looking at the three different countries you’ve inhabited: Iran and then America and then also the Republic of Imagination as a third country. Of course many things have changed since you first published Reading Lolita in Tehran about 12 years ago. Looking back on that length of time, how have your perceptions of your home country, Iran, changed during that time?
Azar Nafisi: Well, you know, they have not changed substantially in terms of what I thought about Iran’s history and culture and the people, also about the Islamic regime, because the changes that have happened in Iran are rooted in what was happening then. For example, you see Tehran’s streets are much, quote unquote, “nicer” and a lot of restaurants and you see women — of course, the situation of women is like the situation of weather here: you have a little bit of sunshine and then there’s a downpour or a tornado, so you never know. But Iranian women have managed to defy the system at least in terms of appearances. That has changed; if one goes to Tehran today women don’t look the way they did when I left Iran.
But the truth of the matter is that the laws have remained the same, and there is no real security until there is real reform and real change. As you can tell from reading Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, the human rights situation in Iran — the situation of journalists, writers, political prisoners — that also remains the same.
One of the traits I noticed in Iran was this constant defection from within the system. The former revolutionaries and people who were founders of the republic themselves becoming dissidents has accelerated. So for example, the former prime minister [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi, just to give you an example which everyone knows about, and Mehdi Karroubi, our former speaker of the house, are now, they are the ones who are suffering and under house arrest. That tells a lot about this progress towards at least certain segments of civil societies.
TM: In another interview you said the U.S. foreign policy should pursue dialogue not only with the regime in Iran but also with the Iranian people. So how do you think they could do this, especially in light of the recent nuclear agreement?
AN: First of all, the Iranian people — and I am not saying that I’m a spokesperson for them — they don’t really have a spokesperson abroad. That is one problem. So everyone is sort of becoming a self-appointed spokesperson for the people. So I’m not claiming to be that, but the way I see U.S. foreign policy, depending on who is in power, and usually a Democrat or Republican is in power, it sort of vacillates between just sheer belligerence and refusal for any form of dialogue, and then the pendulum goes the other way to sheer compromise with the system. What I really would have loved to see was first of all an understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of that society; and an understanding that in the long run, pragmatically, it is to the American people and American government’s well being to have a more open, flexible, and democratic system in Iran and to really encourage the democratic mind of people in Iran who are now either in jail or their voices are being silenced. You can have a fruitful dialogue with the Islamic regime without forgetting about the rights of the Iranian people.
That is not imposition on another culture. Iran, like other countries that violate human rights like China, like Saudi Arabia, are also benefitting from all the advantages of being members of the United Nations. Under the United Nations, nations swear allegiance to certain universal rights, and these are the rights that Iranian people have been fighting for long before Mr. Khomeini had his revolution; it wasn’t something that the shah granted so that the ayatollah can take away. It was something that people fought for and died for in the Constitutional Revolution at the beginning of the century.
What I’m trying to say is that the negotiations with Iran, which I support — there’s this sort of propaganda all around it, people either being for or against it. I don’t see it like that. I see that there should be negotiations, but the U.S. is negotiating from a position of strength, because Iran never comes to a table unless they feel weak, unless they feel that they are really in a bad position domestically. So while the U.S. is in a position of strength, while they are talking to the Iranian government and obviously compromising on certain issues, they should not compromise on the rights of the Iranian people. And they do. Our administration right now is not even talking about the Iranian Americans who are in jail. That is an insight into the weaknesses of the United States foreign policy, be it Republican or Democrat, and being manipulated. So that is what worries.
As a writer and a woman who believes in rights of women and personal liberty, I don’t take political sides, but I do have a position on the issue of human rights. I have seen that what makes tyrants afraid is not military might. The first people who are sacrificed in these regimes are journalists and writers and poets, and actually those who teach humanities. Those are at the forefront of the struggle and are targets.
TM: I also wanted to ask about how your own experiences under the regime in Iran have then shaped the way you approach American politics and your own level of civic involvement here.
AN: Iran taught me many things. One of the first things I realized was that individual rights and human rights are not God-given gifts to the West. This is an illusion some people in this country and in other democracies have; that they have certain traits that makes them deserve freedom of choice and other freedoms. I think that everyone — and I’ve seen that in Iran in terms of its history and in terms of my own life experiences in that country — that people want a decent life. Nobody hates, no matter what kind of culture you come from, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I talk about Iran, I don’t differentiate between rights in Iran and rights in America.
The second thing that the Islamic Republic taught me was that these countries we call totalitarian or tyrannical are only distorted and extreme cases of what we could become in a democracy. What a democracy can learn from countries that are more repressive is to understand that freedom is an ordeal. Coming to the United States I find myself again talking about the ordeals that we all face and the challenges we face here. And the challenge that I am trying to face in the U.S. right now is this complacency and conformity.
The last thing is that I realize how important it is to pay attention to culture and history, and that, even if you are thinking about the military conquest, the first thing you have to do is to understand, not to judge. That is why for me fiction becomes so crucial because that is what it teaches us, to first understand and then try to judge.
TM: Thinking about America now, you talked a little in your book about how a lot of Americans have become complacent and they’ve given up some of their freedoms, especially since 9/11. Why do you think Americans have become complacent and allowed that to happen? Another phrase you used in your book was that safety is an illusion, and I think in giving up our freedoms we’ve really prioritized this illusion of safety. Why do you think Americans have done that and have let that happen?
AN: I think that when we go through periods of too much prosperity and too little thinking, it can very easily be translated into a form of smartness and conformity. Now I was away from America for 18 years, so I am only speaking about what happened in this country in those 18 years from other people’s experiences or what I have read, but it seems to me that especially in the ’80s and right into the ’90s there was this transformation into the other side of the American Dream, which is a gross materialism. On one hand we have this mindset, on the other hand within the academia actually and among the intellectuals and policy makers we have this ideological mindset, and I think both of these mindsets, although they are very different in terms of positions they take, are very similar. Both of them are lazy. They don’t want to think — I mean intellectually lazy. To think and to imagine and to genuinely follow the truth or try to understand and reveal the truth is dangerous, it has its consequences. Once you know the truth, then you have to take action. You can’t remain silent. So most people would rather not know. Ideologies always do that.
I was so amazed when I returned to the United States and discovered how polarized this society has become, even in terms of the news — that you don’t listen to the news from people you don’t agree with. Fox News, for example, for me was a very new and strange and gradually scary phenomenon where you negate reality. There is no more news in most of our channels, from left to right. It is an imposition of your own desires and illusions and ideologies upon reality, so reality doesn’t matter. And that makes it easier, because when you and I think that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we’re always on the side of the good guys, it is like Miss Watson in Huckleberry Finn, who believes that the world is divided into those who go to hell and those who go to heaven. And she obviously belongs to those who go to heaven, and in order to go to heaven, all you have to do is not to question, not to understand complexities, not to have curiosity, not to take risks; only see if somebody believes in your set of formulas. That is one thing that really worries me about America.
Alongside of that is this utilitarian pleasure-seeking, comfort-seeking mindset. You know, I think it is amazing, elections for us have turned into a sort of entertainment. People were a little happy watching the Democrats’ recent debate because it at least talked about issues. It frightens me when we watch Donald Trump, because we either want to laugh at him or we genuinely believe in him. Americans now, it seems to be a reign of ignorance. How you could think someone could be your president who is so ignorant of your own history and culture, as well as the history and culture of the world? This is no laughing matter at some point. We see that in our universities where our students want trigger warnings; they don’t want to read novels that make them uncomfortable. You keep hearing the word “uncomfortable.” And then the celebrity culture, we talk about Michelle Obama and Jonathan Franzen and Beyoncé and this phenomenon called Kim Kardashian. You are dissolving people’s individualities, what they really do in real life, into this generalized term. Michelle Obama is the First Lady, Franzen is a writer, Beyoncé is a singer, and Kardashian, God knows what she is. It’s this greed for everything that wants to be new.
In my book, the second chapter “Babbitt,” Babbitt like Henry Ford believes that history is bunk. Memory is bunk. And all they crave is new gadgets. We have all become like Babbitt, dying to know the latest Apple iPhone or iPad, staying up and queuing in front of the stores to get the new gadgets. The world is going up in flames, in churches people are killing people, our schools are no more secure and we are yet wanting to feel comfortable. I can go on forever, but that is why I said that we need to be able to reflect, to think, to take risks, and to imagine a world not just as it is, but as it should or could be. Otherwise how could you and I vote if we do not learn in schools our own history and the history of the world, our own culture and the culture of the world? How do we have the ability to think and make choices? These are questions that bother me. They are different from the questions that bothered me in Iran where my life was sometimes in danger, but I still feel that something very precious is in danger in this country.
TM: Building on that a little bit, one thing that I noticed in your book was you talked about political correctness. Some would argue that political correctness was born out of a need to redress grievances and show respect to those that have been marginalized, but in your book you point out that political correctness leads to “comfortable questions and easy, ready-made answers.” What alternative would you present to political correctness? How can we still show that respect without putting everyone’s ways of thought into a box?
AN: All of these matters like political correctness, like multiculturalism, came out of a desire to respect others and be curious about others. But the point is that you cannot create these things into a set of formulas, and you cannot assign people to a situation. I think that is dangerous. That is the difference between what I saw under conditions that were far more difficult; for example when we talk about or see documentaries on civil rights movements, when people were fighting for their rights very seriously, you had a conviction and despite the fact that the others or the society or the law tried to victimize you, you refused that victimized status. Nowadays someone who is wearing that status will condescendingly talk about others: “Don’t hurt their sensitivities.” It is not about hurting sensitivities, it is about changing mindsets. Mindsets are not changed by some thug calling women all sorts of names, or calling minorities all sorts of names, and then tomorrow coming on TV to apologize. Or by forbidding people to talk in a way or punishing them the way we are. All we are doing is not changing people’s mindsets, we are making them just become silent and build resentment and then they’ll come out on the attack when the time comes.
As a woman who comes from a particular place like Iran…let me just give you the examples of women in Iran. What women in Iran realized, in comparison with their own past and in comparison with what they desire, was that they were genuine victims of the regime. When you are forced to marry at the age of nine or stoned to death or are flogged, these things make you real victims; it’s not somebody calling you names. But we could have done two things: either just accept that victim status or to actively resist it by not becoming like our oppressors. I think that is the greatest lesson I have learned from James Baldwin. Baldwin talks about the most dangerous thing was not those white racists but the hatred that they stimulated in him, which made him become them.
So if we are victims of race or class or gender rather than constantly complaining or forbidding people to talk about these things, we should stand up and we should act so that people know we are not victims. We refuse that status. If I refuse that status, then whatever somebody says is not going to hurt me. That is what I mean by everybody wanting to be comfortable and find solutions by forbidding, but this forbidding has no end, because you’ll notice that the right is constantly bothered and sensitized about whether we will have another Christmas celebration or not or wants to ban Harry Potter or evolution from the schools; and the left might call The Great Gatsby misogynist or Huckleberry Finn racist, and want to make our job easy and kick them out. What I want to say to people is that the domain of imagination and thought is the only domain where blasphemy and profanity can exist. That is where we should be free to roam and to question and be questioned.
So my students should not only read those writers who for example were fighting against fascism, but they should also understand what Hitler was all about. That domain is the domain of free thought and freedom of the imagination, and we are limiting it by ideology.
That is what I was trying to practice in my classes. I would never begin with theory, because I didn’t want my students to be intimidated or influenced by somebody who they think knows better. So first of all I would have them read the text and talk about the text and come up with their own ideas about the text. Then I would ask them to read theories that I myself hated, but I would not tell them, I would have them read theories from all sides and come to their own conclusion. I don’t want my students to all take the same political positions that I do, but I want them to think and be able to defend their ideas and be able to have that intellectual courage to stand up for their principles.
TM: So if you could give a reading list of a few more works important to the Republic of Imagination, what would those books be?
AN: There are so many. First of all, I don’t believe I have explained it fully in my book; the point about my book was that I ended at a specific period in time because I felt that the 1960s were a time of transition both in terms of American culture as well as politics and society, and whatever we are dealing with now, both good and bad, is partly because of what happened in the ’60s and ’70s.
The second thing is that I had about 24 people on the list for this book, which I reduced to what you see now. For example, I wanted to talk about Herman Melville’s Bartleby; I love that guy who keeps saying, “I prefer not to.” If we talk about before the ’60’s, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and some of the lesser known, I believe, minor masterpieces, like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonely Hearts and The Day of the Locust; I think he beautifully predicts our society today. Of course I mentioned Stoner in my book, but I also love David Foster Wallace, I love Geraldine Brooks, and some of the works by Nicole Krauss. These are writers who are too close to my time and I need to digest them more in order to be able to write about them more. Of course mystery, I would love to write about Raymond Chandler and science fiction like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick.
TM: Do you think you’d ever publish a list of those 24 people that you wanted to write about? Because I think you should!
AN: I’d love to! You know, one of my problems, and I mentioned it in one of my books, is that in terms of books, I’m very promiscuous. There are so many books that I want to write about. I was in Italy for my book last month and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, I want to write about so many of these books now!” I hope I will at least get a chance to write about some of them. It is so joyous to be able to share the books you love.
TM: How would you say that fiction influences and changes the future, from people’s hearts to the changes we make in our societies to even the inventions we create?
AN: Well you know, I believe that fiction, telling stories, is essential to our nature as human beings. If you go back to the first stories that are Greek and Roman mythology, to the Bible to the Qur’an, until you come to epic fiction and all of that, you notice that fiction comes out of curiosity, and curiosity is the first step towards change. Both science and literature are very much dependent on this curiosity. Because to be curious means to leave yourself behind and search for something that you don’t know, and enter a world like Alice and her Wonderland, enter a world that you have not visited before. And that experience, like traveling to other lands, learning other people’s languages, it changes you.
You might not notice the change in a very concrete way, but it changes your perspective on the world. It expands your perspective; it washes your eyes and you look at yourself through the eyes of other people. So I feel that that is one of the greatest contributions of fiction in terms of preserving our humanity. It also gives us continuity because it is the guardian of memory, and that is why I’m so amazed when I read something that was written some years ago and it seems as if they predicted what we are now.
The last thing of course is that fiction touches the heart. It makes you connect to other people through your heart and that experience of connection through the heart is also life changing — to be able to, for a minute even, become another person and then come back to your own being.
TM: You love fiction so much; would you ever consider writing a novel? Or have you decided nonfiction is more of what you want to write?
AN: Well, you know, maybe this is my weakness or obsession that I think for me fiction is the highest form of writing. To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m very scared. I mean, I write for myself; I have loads of pages and now computer files of all these things that I have written, but that is one part of it. The other part of it is that I was fascinated — since I wrote my first book in Iran — by these intersections between fiction and reality and how reality turns into fiction and vice versa, how they change one another. And I think for as long as I have that obsession, it will be difficult to make the leap. I don’t want to write fiction which is really just disguised biography. So I hope one day I will reach that stage before I die. Maybe I’ll write my last book as a novel and then die. I want nothing, nothing else in the world.
Literature –– no, the world –– needs more people like Azar Nafisi. A strident proponent of fiction, Nafisi has done much more than simply write about literature and its vital role in our lives, she’s taught it –– in America, England, Iran, and in lecture halls all over the world, in which she advocates for literature as an antidote to ideology. In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, she tells how she quit the university where she was teaching because of the potential intrusion of the totalitarian government. Then, she invited her students into her home, which one could be tempted to describe as Nafisi putting her money where her mouth is, if the mention of money in such a context weren’t so gratuitously irrelevant.
In that book, Nafisi brought the power of American fiction into the world of Iran. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, she brings lessons from Iran to America. In Tehran, her students valued the freedom to read in a profound and immediate way, since such activities were often forbidden, especially for women. In America, reading isn’t cherished in the same way; it’s old hat to us. Or, at least, so said an Iranian man named Ramin who came to one of Nafisi’s readings in Seattle. “It’s useless,” he tells her, “your talk about books. These people are different from us –– they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to Xerox hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”
Is he right? Nafisi doesn’t think so, but her resulting project doesn’t end up explaining why Ramin isn’t right so much as passionately explain why he shouldn’t be right. Having become an American citizen in 2008, Nafisi has a real stake in the answer to Ramin’s question, and so much to contribute to a possible answer. Her book, then, tries valiantly, if not always successfully, to cover a lot of ground. In these pages we find discussions of the three books of the subtitle –– Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but also many others, including a long epilogue focused on James Baldwin and J.D. Salinger –– as well as the founding fathers, conservatives, Common Core, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, her long-time friend Farrah, college friends Mike and Joanna, and numerous other personal anecdotes of life in America and Iran. It’s a testament to Nafisi’s considerable skill that she’s able to wrangle all this into a mostly cohesive unit. But wholeness actually seems a little beside the point, here, since what makes The Republic of Imagination so wonderful is Nafisi’s irrepressible conviction in the power of fiction to show us who we are.
But it’s more than that, too. Underneath her literary analysis and her personal reflections, Nafisi’s book carries an implicit argument about American values. For her, an American not by birth but by choice, the country she loves was both formed and created by its literature, the myths that both reflect us and instruct us. That’s where we belong, she says. And that’s what we should look to for guidance and difficult truths. Instead, she sees an America steeped in religiosity and jingoism. She quotes Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” In other words, a true republic must be malleable, open to constant scrutiny and endless revision, and we as citizens must reciprocate by criticizing in the hopes of change and making the necessary changes in ourselves as well. Religion and fervent, uncritical patriotism simplify things. Or, as Nafisi puts it:
Ideology eliminates paradox and seeks to destroy contradiction and ambiguity. While it is generally ruthless to outsiders, it can be consoling when you are in the group that always wears the white hat no matter what.
In her long chapter on Huck Finn, Nafisi celebrates Huck’s “subversive character” and how Jim “questions the system of beliefs sanctioned by religious and social authorities.” (She even valiantly defends the book’s notoriously unsatisfying ending, or, as George Saunders put it, “The ending, oh my god, the ending.”) In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Nafisi sees the “iconically American” character of “lonely, dissatisfied career men, family men yearning to escape the seemingly desirable entrapments of their mundane lives.” The “standardized” Babbitt, in his desire to please, to be liked, to be successful, is contrasted with the figures in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, who are “solitary misfits who cannot create a bond.” They represent “a new kind of urban loneliness that will cast a long shadow over American fiction.” Huck and the characters of McCullers’s first novel stand on one side of American values, Babbitt on the other. Nafisi asks, “What if we let Babbitt win?”
Letting Babbitt win amounts to succumbing to ideology, to allowing the comforting sway of conformism, of strict allegiance, to win out over critical individualism. Literature, with all its complexity and nuance, its ambiguities and contradictions, is not a replacement for these ideas but rather an antidote to them. Literature is not an ideology; it is not a religion. It is something grander, more human and humane. For literature asks nothing of you. It doesn’t tell you how to live or who to love. It doesn’t tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you were born wrong. It doesn’t promise punishment for lack of adherence, and it doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow it. And the best part? Literature acknowledges its fiction, its artifice, its ultimate inability to express the capital-T Truth. Literature only promises an attempt, over and over from endless artists, to see the world as their author sees it, to add if only one speck of useful insight, of meaningful observation, to the great tradition of the written word. Literature doesn’t just invite criticism and contribution, it demands it –– the basis of literature is a kind of call and response. Each new author is in some way responding to all who came before them, before they even write one word. Ideally, literature is complete freedom, and as such it’s a messy world –– cheaters and philanderers run rampant as evil characters get away with evil deeds and good people’s values are compromised and deep-seated values are not only questioned but irreverently tossed out the window. If you’re looking for an easy road map to human ethics, literature ain’t the place for you. But this is Nafisi’s point. We shouldn’t look for the easy instructions, for unambiguous demands; we need to challenge every belief we have, to test them, strengthen them, or replace them if need be.
Growing up in Ohio, religion was a normal part of everyday life. As an atheist from a young age, I clung to literature for its confrontational attitude toward accepted values, but I always disagreed when people would say to me, “Well, books are your religion.” Because literature is not a synonym for religion; it’s not a replacement. It’s another territory altogether. In fact, it is as Nafisi describes it, a country. “So much of who we are,” she writes, “no matter where we live, depends on how we imagine ourselves to be.” She goes on to say:
Stories endure –– they have been with us since the dawn of history –– but they need to be refreshed and retold in every generation through the eyes and experiences of new readers sharing a common space that knows no boundaries of politics or religion, ethnicity or gender –– a Republic of Imagination, that most democratic republic of all.
And like a true republic, citizenship here requires work and thought and an open mind, because literature isn’t easy –– it can still offend, provoke, or cause controversy. Even then, we must engage and not simplistically condemn. As Philip Pullman once put it when I saw him speak at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University, in response to a question about the “offensive” title of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Yes, it was shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. Uh, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
Literature always gives you choices –– to act, to respond, to criticize, to protest –– and, more than that, it actually thrives on this process. Whereas ideology, religion, and jingoism flourish in rigidity, in adherence. As Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses, “unbendingess can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.”
I’m deeply appreciative of Azar Nafisi and her project of promoting fiction throughout the world. But more I’m grateful for her Republic of Imagination. My whole life I’ve been a citizen of a complex moral landscape, a rich world created by some of the greatest minds humanity has had to offer, peopled by every type of person from every type of culture –– I’ve always lived here, but now, thanks to Nafisi, I have a name for my adopted home.
At Book Club, I’m a spy. I’m the only writer in this group of a dozen women. The others are scientists, doctors, social workers, winemakers. I’ve enjoyed the company of these smart, opinionated women immensely for nearly ten years, but I’d be lying if I said the camaraderie (and the pinot and the cheese) were the only reasons I participate. You see, my membership in the group gives me a real window into the reading habits of the very audience I’m trying to capture with my own fiction, a way to conduct a living room focus group, if you will, without anyone being the wiser. I can report that, over a decade, the tastes of the group have changed dramatically, in a way that doesn’t necessarily bode well for my own emerging career.
At Book Club, I’m also the secretary. One of my annual jobs is to compile a list of recommendations for the coming year. Every member offers a couple suggestions — title, author, and a one paragraph description typically cut and pasted from Amazon. Before sending out the list, I read through it closely, excited about all the interesting possibilities. And yet, my mind gets stuck on particular phrases in the descriptions that I know, from years of experience, will likely push the book out of contention.
I’m in the heads of these ladies, imagining the silent demerits they will offer to words like “heartbreaking,” (too sad), “epic” (too long), “thought-provoking” (meh, could go either way). Any book that features the loss of a child is out, no debate. Spousal abuse, cruelty to animals, anything hinting at a conservative world-view (unless it’s written by someone who abandoned that world-view), nope, nope, and nope.
It wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago, most of us were just reaching our thirties. We’d yet to have children. We were career-focused, new transplants to our little town (brought here through our or our spouses’ jobs at the local college), and we were eager for friendship and mind-stimulation. We used to read at least a dozen books a year for the club. We read literary best-sellers by Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. We read classics, such as the collected stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We read topical nonfiction, such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. We had a night solely devoted to poems we loved. We read cookbooks. Once, just after Obama won his first election, we kicked off a meeting with a reading of Goodnight Bush, a parody of the classic Goodnight Moon we’d all soon enough be reading to our own children.
I vividly remember a meeting, about six years ago, when half of our small group was pregnant, myself included. We were propped uncomfortably on couches and chairs, using pillows strategically. Those who weren’t pregnant had left their infants or toddlers home with spouses. One nursed her newborn while we discussed my top pick for that year, Lorrie Moore’s bestselling story collection, Birds of America. I was the discussion leader, another relic that’s been lost.
Recommending this book was perhaps a mistake, not because I didn’t love it, but because I loved it too much, to the point of challenging anyone in the room to a knife fight lest they claim Moore was anything less than the greatest living writer. The trouble started when, one by one, members admitted they could not read the book’s show-stopper, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” a gut-wrenching story, yet full of Moore’s characteristic wit and humor, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the setting is a pediatric cancer ward.
“Does this kid die?” someone asked. A roomful of frightened eyes asked me the same question. My arms were crossed over my expanding belly. I knew that Moore’s story, though billed as fiction, was largely autobiographical. I knew, from some interview or another, that Moore’s son was alive and well. I urged people to go back to the story, said they’d be glad they did, but I’m not sure that anyone did so.
A similar thing happened when we picked Emma Donaghue’s Room. Thankfully, during the meeting to pick that year’s books, someone was there who had already read Room and could assure everyone that the boy and his mother do escape from their captor and survive. Without that member’s impassioned plea, it would not have been chosen, despite its stellar reviews. I worry about what our picks say about us, myself included. Although I might read more widely due to my profession as a writer, I, too, have found myself on many nights, once the children are finally asleep, the dishes washed, reaching for a decorating magazine by the side of my bed rather than the stack of National Book Award nominees. As I’m currently battling insomnia, my doctor warned me against reading anything too “heavy” right before sleep. And so, the books must wait until I have a swath of time during the day when I can absorb myself in something more challenging. But with two young children, that just isn’t going to happen.
Is that a lame excuse? Have I, and our other club members, become lazy? Complacent? Has motherhood made us incapable of putting literary tragedy in its proper perspective? Or are we just…tired? Are we victims of the mentality that says we must do it all or die trying? (Books on this topic will almost always get the nod.) Is it so wrong to simply want to zone out with a magazine, or a Will Ferrell movie, instead of the latest Oscar nominee for Best Picture?
This year, we will pick only five books. It was a decision made last year when the club was on life support. Attendance had dwindled to nothing, and something had to be done. We threw all the former rules aside. Can’t make most of the meetings? That’s okay! Come whenever! Come to the meeting, even if you haven’t read the book! Bring a friend, who also hasn’t read the book! We now have two purely social meetings each year, one a potluck that includes our families. The other five meetings feature discussion of a brief magazine article of interest to the group, usually something from The New Yorker or The Atlantic, which can be read over lunch the day of the meeting.
Though membership has changed, the Book Club has been with me since I started writing my debut novel five years ago. I’m finally done and showing it to agents, but will I show it to club members? I’m not so sure I can just yet. I worry about their reaction. Though there is humor and lightheartedness scattered throughout, my book is about serious themes, a controversial mix of religion and politics and science, all the things one is not supposed to talk about in polite company. If I anonymously offered a description of it in the list of recommendations, would it get chosen? I’m afraid I know the answer to that question, and it makes my eye start to twitch.
In any case, we’ve gravitated from novels to mostly non-fiction, titles that impact our lives directly, such as books examining child-rearing, work/life balance, or books that show us the science of our decision making. If they’re going to take the time to read them, members want books they can use. I read the list of recommendations again before sending it to the group. “Hilarious,” (check) “Unputdownable,” (this is a word now? check) “Eye-opening” (could go either way). I look over the books I’d personally like to read, even when they inevitably don’t get chosen. These are books that might make me sad, but that I think ultimately will give me an understanding of what it means to be human. These books will be my non-required reading, should I be ambitious enough at the end of a long day to put down the decorating magazines.
And so the voting begins. I feel bad for the excellent authors who won’t make our list. Laugh, I want to tell them, and the Book Club laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone.
Image: Sean M. Freese/Flickr