Our country's founding fathers knew that to build America's roads and bridges, we needed engineers; to grow America's economy, we needed businesses; but to ensure America's freedom, we needed an enlightened citizenry.
And an enlightened citizenry is one that reads and appreciates its literature, Azar Nafisi argues in her latest book, "The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books."
Author of the bestselling "Reading Lolita in Tehran," Nafisi presents a passionate and compelling case for the return of the imagination to our nation's esteem. At a time when the liberal arts are increasingly devalued (art and music are cut from school curricula; politicians call for an end to liberal arts funding at public universities; the Common Core suggests that 70 percent of what school kids read be "informational texts"), Nafisi sounds this warning: A society that dismisses its literature is a society that risks losing its freedom.
"Against the onslaught of consumerism," Nafisi writes, "against all the overwhelming siren voices that beckon, our only weapon is to exercise our right to choose. And to make the right choices, we need to be able to think, to reflect, to pause, to imagine." And to do that, Nafisi suggests, we need to be able to read more than charts and facts and figures; we need to dig deeply into moral complexities, understand nuance, be tolerant of others and live empathetically. To help us achieve those things, we must read literature.
Part memoir, part close reading, Nafisi's book is structured around three particularly American novels and what each teaches us. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," for example, alerts us to the dangers of blindly accepting social mores. Through Huck, we learn to empathize and to develop a personal conscience — something that is particularly American, and particularly essential to a just society. The second novel Nafisi explicates is Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt." In the character of George Babbitt (a man "nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay"), we discover the dark side of the American dream: an antihero who speaks in the "corporate language of efficiency and productivity," who advises his college-age son to avoid "Shakespeare and those," and who nearly loses his soul in the pursuit of privilege. Similarly, in Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," solitary misfits wander in urban loneliness, unable to communicate, yearning for connection.
Leave it to a former citizen of a totalitarian state to slap us upside the head and point out what our literature can teach us. Nafisi, who emigrated from Tehran and became a U.S. citizen in 2008, has taught in Washington, D.C., since 1997. As a teacher, she often hears the question posed to all English teachers: Why do we have to read this? This book is a thoughtful and brilliant answer to that question.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.