Azar Nafisi’s “Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times” takes the form of five letters to the author’s late father. They were composed during the Trump presidency, as the pandemic and George Floyd’s killing unsettled both the body politic and individual psyches in the United States. The letters are ruminations on the role of humanistic books in places torn by conflict and polarization; but they also, through flashbacks to Nafisi’s home country of Iran, draw unnerving connections between that totalitarian state of her birth and the contemporary America she has adopted as a naturalized U.S. citizen.
By taking this approach, Nafisi pays homage to two writers she offers as models in the book, her sixth. James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates both tackled the unremitting trauma of racism in America through the literary device of letters — Baldwin to his nephew, Coates to his son. Their warnings and their hope were couched as offerings to the next generation. Nafisi, perhaps best known as the author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” might have followed their lead and written to, for example, the two grandchildren whom she was expecting, and who were born, as she wrote “Read Dangerously.” Why, instead, does she address her words to her father, almost two decades dead?
Her father was jailed by the shah’s government in 1963, when he was mayor of Tehran. His crime was to disobey orders to shut shops early and close hospitals to protesters during demonstrations against the arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then an outsider to political power. Khomeini had denounced the ruling elite’s progressive reforms, including those enfranchising women. Nafisi’s father went to prison for four years because he insisted on fair and humane treatment for people he disagreed with. From father to daughter, there is a clear line in the moral and intellectual commitment to seeing the enemy’s humanity. “Read Dangerously” — criticism, memoir and argument as well as correspondence to a lost loved one — confirms that lineage.
To build her thesis (an old one) that reading literature increases our capacity for empathy, even and perhaps especially for our enemies, Nafisi begins by setting up a classic confrontation: between oppressive power and those who speak truth to it through the exercise of the imagination.
Frequently and deftly shifting lanes between autobiography and literary analysis, she uses her experience and reading of three books to question the nature of this immemorial conflict between the poet and the tyrant. She remembers how, as a university student in Oklahoma, she debated Plato’s “Republic,” in which philosopher-kings exiled poets from their ideal society, with a conservative American fellow student, a fan of the banishment. They disagreed, but respectfully and over many congenial coffees. She also remembers witnessing on the ground, as a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s, Khomeini’s infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the perceived sins of his novel “The Satanic Verses.” The “poet” had written a rambunctious, high-velocity book about migration and the changes in national and personal identity that it catalyzes. The tyrant cleric had seen in it only blasphemous portrayals of the prophet Muhammad. Then Nafisi tackles another state that bans books and promotes burning them — the fictional, futuristic America that Ray Bradbury created in “Fahrenheit 451” — and she does this in a way that complicates our understanding of who the tyrant is.
Moving from the thought experiment of Plato’s republic to the real-life tyranny of the ayatollah’s rule to a dystopian America imagined by Bradbury in 1953, Nafisi draws parallels between each and the America that led to the election of Donald Trump, and that still exists after his loss of official power. Here, she repeats admonitions from her previous work: Democracies, too, can develop totalitarian traits and be seduced by totalitarian figures. “Whatever we call this figure,” she writes, “whether ‘philosopher king,’ ‘supreme leader,’ ‘führer,’ ‘father of the nation,’ or ‘Mr. President,’ we are talking about the same thing.”
Pushing beyond state power, she also asks incisive questions about the intolerance within individuals. Her observations implicate both adherents of Make America Great Again and their political foes. She sounds alarms about the alienating effects of technology as well as ideology, conjoined twins in preventing us from seeing the full humanity of those we disagree with. “It is easy,” she notes, “to become the carbon copy of the tyrant, to talk and act like him, dehumanizing your adversary.” Stopping short of lamenting cancel culture or wired brains, she nonetheless warns, on the edge of curmudgeonly sentiment, “When we stop reading, we pave the way toward book burning; … when we prefer personality to character, and reality show or virtual reality to reality itself, then we get the kind of politicians we deserve.”
The intervention she preaches is not just to read, but to read books that eschew ideology and instead engage with the nuances and contradictions of individual experience and wrestle in a profound way with understanding the Other. She emphasizes that she’s “not talking about literature of resistance but literature as resistance.” In addition to Baldwin and Coates, her humanistic syllabus includes other writers committed to empathy for “the enemy”: Margaret Atwood, Zora Neale Hurston, David Grossman, Elliot Ackerman and Elias Khoury.
What, then, does it mean to read dangerously? It means to read to know the Other and to dismantle the tyrannies within ourselves. Nafisi suggests that it also means to aspire beyond cultural chauvinism. She tells us that for a brilliant young woman, her former student at a women’s university in Tehran who was later executed by the Islamic republic, reading dangerously meant falling in love with the novels of Henry James. For Baldwin, it meant embracing Shakespeare, both to grapple with the remoteness and discover the intimacy of his English, as a Black writer in America who had inherited the language through the violent displacements of the transatlantic slave trade.
In a recent interview, Nafisi said she first composed “Read Dangerously” as a series of letters to great writers but rejected the result as stilted. Writing to her father solved the problem. She and her father had, after all, exchanged countless letters when she studied in the United States in the 1970s and when, later, she immigrated here. In prison, he addressed his diaries to her, though she was just a child.
This book reciprocates the rhetorical gesture in a natural, intimate voice. Stylistic and affective reasons aside, writing to her departed father reinforces the mood of Nafisi’s book, which turns to the power and example of the brave past and to a tradition of great books as solace and guide. With sensitivity and intelligence, it offers a new canon for the tyrannies of the present and the dystopian possibilities of the future.
Gaiutra Bahadur, an associate professor of journalism at Rutgers University at Newark, is the author of “Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture.”
The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times
Dey Street. 221 pp. $26.99