Readers who were inspired by Azar Nafisi’s paean to literature in Reading Lolita in Tehran—there were enough to keep the book on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks—can rejoice at the appearance of The Republic of Imagination (Viking, Oct.), an homage to American literature and a reflection of what it means to become an American.
The only requirements for entry to the Republic of Imagination, Nafisi writes, are “an open mind, a restless desire to know, and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane.” This could be a sign above every bookstore’s door.
At first conceived as a study of 24 favorite books, in the end Nafisi focused on three quintessential American works: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. “I decided I’d concentrate on books I had read when I was younger, in Iran, and how they affected my views of America. As my theme took shape—about lonely vagrant characters who also represent the best of American individualism—I realized I wanted to go into books in depth.”
Along with studying the novels, Nafisi had to re-educate herself in American history, to understand the founding ideals and see in what way the fiction she had read related to it. “It took me a long, long time.” The book’s epilogue is devoted to James Baldwin. “He sums up everything I wanted to talk about in the book,” Nafisi says. “Baldwin is the true heir to Huck and Jim. He’s almost as important as Twain, which is why I saved him to the end.”
Though she writes mostly about classics, Nafisi says she tries to keep up with contemporary fiction. “I love David Foster Wallace. His perspective on the world and society is very sharp and unsparing. He doesn’t have the cynicism or self-righteousness others have when they criticize society. Also Dave Eggers, and a wave of writers that come from other cultures, and of course Gary Shteyngart and his ironic view that turns both ways, toward self and world. Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri—I was thinking, while working on the epilogue about Baldwin, that at a time when everything, including fiction, is in crisis, American fiction is still one of the most vital in the world.”
Nafisi will sign copies of her book at the Penguin booth (1521) today, 10:30–11:30 a.m.