The Sydney Morning Herald

By Andrew Purcell

The epilogue of Azar Nafisi's new book, The Republic of Imagination, is devoted to James Baldwin, a writer who has been much quoted this year, as a new civil rights movement coalesces in the United States in response to police killings of unarmed black men.

Nafisi objects that Baldwin is not more relevant or necessary just because racism is a little more visible at the moment. Great writing is timeless, and universal, she argues. Adults young and old should read him, wherever they live and whatever the colour of their skin.

"I get very angry when they talk about Baldwin simply as an African-American writer," she says. "Literature is always about the other. It is taking us to places we have not seen, meeting with people and empathising with people we have not known."

As a child in Iran, she read The Wizard of OzLittle House on the Prairie and To Kill a Mockingbird. As a lecturer at Tehran University she taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. As an adopted American, living in Washington DC, she sought to understand her new country through its books, and concluded that societies that forget to read become intolerant and conformist, whether they are dictatorships or democracies.

Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita In Tehran, was a huge hit when it came out in 2002. Her account of teaching American literature during the Iranian revolution and under the subsequent repressive theocratic regime spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and was translated into more than 30 languages.

On December 1, 2008, Nafisi swore allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. She did so whole-heartedly. Her family and friends are here, and she has not been back to Iran since fleeing the fundamentalists two decades ago. But she did so also in the spirit of two of her literary heroes, Baldwin and Mark Twain.

Baldwin said: "I love America more than any country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually." Twain, in his memoirs, wrote that "if there was any valuable difference between being American and a monarchist, it lay in the theory that the American could decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn't." The Republic of Imagination is Nafisi's passionate critique of the society in which she has chosen to raise her children.

From the start, she pulls no punches. "The crisis besetting America is not just an economic or political crisis," she writes. "Something deeper is wreaking havoc across the land, a mercenary and utilitarian attitude that demonstrates little empathy for people's actual well-being, that dismisses knowledge and thought, branding passion for knowledge irrelevant."

To make her argument, she reaches for three well-thumbed volumes: Huckleberry FinnBabbitt by Sinclair Lewis and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. She first taught Twain's classic novel in Tehran, in 1979, as students massed in the courtyard chanting "Death to America!" and she has revisited it constantly on her journey towards American citizenship.

Nafisi, like Ernest Hemingway before her, sees Huckleberry Finn as the definitive American character, father to generations of drifters at odds with social mores. J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield being just one example. She compares contemporary society to the "smothery towns" and "sivilization" that Huck cannot abide and argues that too many American politicians, professors and journalists lack his moral courage.

A few years ago, a well-meaning publisher struck the word "nigger" from Twain's book. More recently, some universities have introduced so-called "trigger warnings" to alert students to violence, profanity, racism and sexism in novels.

This winds Nafisi up. "It smacks of the kind of society that wants to be complacent, wants to be comfortable, doesn't want to confront life itself," she says. "If you become traumatised by reading Huckleberry Finn or Merchant of Venice, how are you going to live in this world?"

Nafisi finds examples of this complacent attitude all around her. Neither Twain nor Baldwin are on the Common Core reading list for high school pupils, which is 30 per cent fiction and 70 per cent "informational text". She regards this as the triumph of Sinclair Lewis' central character: Babbitt is a philistine who wonders what the point of Shakespeare is and wishes more "business English" was taught in school.

"What one is scared of is standardised thought, which the corporate model, if it's imposed on the whole society, brings to us," says Nafisi. "That is what is frightening." Common Core mandates that whether the text is Romeo and Juliet, The Gettysburg Address or an Environmental Protection Agency report, it must be taught the same way, with a narrow focus on the words, rather than the context in which they were written.

Having taken consumerism and conformity to task, Nafisi turns to loneliness, presenting it as an urgent modern malady, intensified by social media. In her reading, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, with its portraits of atomised strivers in a southern town, anticipates the smartphone generation, constantly connected but grasping for meaningful connection.

"I think we underestimate, at least in this country, how much the young people are hungry for meaning and passion in their lives, and unfortunately iPhone and iPad does not provide them with that meaning or that passion," she says.

In 2009, she toured the US to promote her second memoir, Things I've Been Silent About, and discovered that many of the bookshops she had visited six years earlier for Reading Lolita had been closed down, along with many of the local newspapers. Globalisation, internet commerce and the rise of e-readers had a lot to do with this, of course, but it also stirred a deeper fear in Nafisi: that Americans no longer want to read.

In his 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the Russian dissident author Joseph Brodsky observed that: "Though we can condemn the material suppression of literature — the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books — we are powerless when it comes to its worst violation: that of not reading the books."

Nafisi finds grounds for optimism in the students she teaches at Johns Hopkins University, and the teenagers she meets on tour. "When young people are introduced to books themselves, they become very excited and enthusiastic," she says. "We should allow them to create a one-to-one relationship with the book itself and the world of imagination."

Her solution to the malaise afflicting America is to read more widely, and to encourage people to apply for a passport to the Republic of Imagination, a country without borders accessible to anyone who opens a book.

"I don't think that I have been this emotional and eager to become an activist for the cause of education since the early days of college," she says. "If we are preparing our children to face and confront life then we have to teach them to see and confront and imagine life at its best and its worst. That is one of the things that imagination does for us."

This article was originally published in the The Sydney Morning Herald