“The American dream?” Later, I added: “The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves as a nation. Works of the imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.” -Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination, page 13
When I heard about The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi, on the power and importance of fiction and written by the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, I knew I needed to read it. It’s not that I can pinpoint why, but that I’ve always believed books help to change the world for the better.
That’s why I helped found and lead the book recommendation site Great New Books, why I read stacks of books each year, and why I choose to write, especially fiction. But it’s an illusive argument, or so I’ve always thought.
In The Republic of Imagination, Azar Nafisi introduces three essential books by American authors which she believes help define American fiction, and talks about them in the text.
The 3 Books
The first: Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Nafisi talks about the main character, Huck, and his friend Jim as being in the lowest rank of society, and yet by the end of the book, Huck demonstrates through his decisions a moral victory over the others in the book.
The second: Sinclair Lewis and Babbitt
A social satire which shows that the enemy of our time is a standardized mind, Nafisi says.
Third: Carson McCullers and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
A story in which Nafisi argues that isolation is cured by passion.
The Republic of Imagination
I’ve read Huck Finn probably three times (my boys love it) and Babbitt in school, and after reading The Republic of Imagination, I want to go back and read all three. The text in Republic of Imagination, loaded with excellent quotes, reads as part memoir, but mainly as academic discussion, on the ideas which define this place inside our heads in which reading fiction helps to grow. Nafisi’s Republic is a place of imagination where we can create independent thoughts, where we learn to have empathy from reading, and where reading fiction helps to cultivate inner thought, and in turn makes us better citizens of the world.
Throughout, the idea is that when we read, especially fiction, we learn to think for ourselves, and in turn make the world a better place.
For me personally, I wonder why Nafisi didn’t choose To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. To me, it is the novel which encourages the reader most effectively to crawl into another human being’s skin before we make a judgement about them. If I were to add to The Republic of Imagination, it would be to add To Kill a Mockingbird as one of its essential texts.
Nafisi closes with an epilogue of James Baldwin, and with many quotes from his writing.
“”You read something which you thought only happened to you,” Baldwin said in an interview, “and you discover it happened a hundred years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone.” Then he added, “This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.”” -page 313
“”You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world,” Baldwin wrote in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, “But then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”” – page 321
“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” – James Baldwin, page 327
Yes, books are important. Without them, we remain small, inside ourselves, without a deeper way of connecting to the human experience, and life. Nafisi has written a beautiful book on the power and importance of fiction. Thank you, Azar Nafisi. Our world is a better place because of you.