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The NYPL Podcast

Podcast #55: Azar Nafisi on the Freedom to Read


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With her national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi became one of our most prominent champions of literature. A professor and author, Nafisi was born in Iran and moved to the United States in 1997. Her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination: American in Three Books, was published in 2014. This week in the New York Public Library podcast, we're sharing Nafisi's recent appearance at LIVE from the NYPL in which she discussed reading, freedom, and entertainment.

Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi with Paul Holdengräber

A Visiting Professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, Nafisi is uniquely positioned to consider the way that education shapes dialogues between and within cultures. She warned of the consequences associated with the deprioritization of reading in the American education system:

“Literacy is only the first step toward really reading. Brodsky talks about how individuals and nations do not read. They face death. And Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite authors, he says you do not need to burn books, as we did in Iran or as they did in fascist Germany or as Isis is doing right now. He says you don't need to burn books to destroy culture, only get the people not to read. And that is what is happening today, in this country: public education is going down.”

What, then, is the solution? To Nafisi, education needs to begin with freedom:

“I think an ideal teacher is a person who—you know, as a teacher you both have to be there with the things that you're really passionate about but you have to also, it's like writing—you have to fade away in order to let others breathe. I think the most important task of a teacher is to teach students how to breathe, to breathe freely, and how to connect to the books themselves. I never, ever start with theory. I never start with my own theories about a book. I want my students to first connect to the texts on their own, to create their own relationships, and then you demand that they go into everything else about a book… You need to have the alternative eye to see a white rabbit, and a great reader has the courage to run after that white rabbit without asking a question, and you have to have the courage to jump down that hole without imposing your own presuppositions.”

Like many thinkers before her, Nafisi has thought about how we might distinguish art and entertainment, and she argued that literature cannot simply be comforting:

“Comfort today, entertainment—Beyonce, Bill O'Reilly—ideology, and entertainment have become so dominant, and literature does not comfort you. You don't write because you need an ice cream for the soul. And you don't read because of that. Literature teaches you to understand and confront and resist, and it teaches you to understand and confront and resist not only the tyranny of man but the tyranny of time because it is the only thing we have—art and literature—against the absolutism of death… so literature takes its revenge against both the tyrants and the tyrant time.”

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I recently started listening to the NYPL podcasts, what a treasure trove. Who did this interview? From the accent it sounds like the same man who interviewed Ru Paul?

Nafisi's podcast and books

Nafisi's views are biased, not based on facts, and misrepresent Iran and its people. Iran is a country with a rich culture and full of literary figures. Even the 'Islamic' art and literature flourished after Islam took advantage of the Persian artisans and literary figures. The literacy rate in Iran is 70%, and more than 50% of college students are women.

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