REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 107

The Republic of Imagination

by Azar Nafisi

It would be easy to describe The Republic of Imagination as a book about reading or America or Iran or politics or education. But exactly what this book is ‘about’ is not easy to say: it is a restless dialogue with life and identity, so full of questions, provocations and propositions that it is almost impossible to categorise.

Firstly, Nafisi interrogates the idea of the ‘American Dream’ by examining key works in America’s literary history. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harry Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter comprise the spine of Nafisi’s canon – but a number of other authors (JD Salinger, John Updike and James Baldwin) are taken in along the way. Alongside this literary mission, Nafisi challenges contemporary ideas around education, identity and democracy, and skilfully weaves in aspects of memoir, personal essay and political analysis to create a unique, holistic narrative.

The main thrust of her literary argument is this: that America’s greatest advocates have also been its harshest critics, and that true American ‘patriotism’ has resulted in a deeply ‘unpatriotic’ canon of literature which is now largely neglected by American universities. The delicacy and depth of her argument is persuasive, and her close examination of cultural and personal histories complements her close reading of the novels extraordinarily well. She just as ably engages with the huge questions of life (What do we do with freedom? How do we construct an identity? What does democracy mean in practice?) as she does with the question of how to live from day to day with passion and integrity.

And this is the real strength of the book – the way Nafisi refuses to distinguish between wider political, cultural and social contexts and those domestic and personal contexts closer to home. The multifariousness of her strategy (which takes in conversations, debates and personal recollection, as well as vignettes from her life as a teacher, friend and public academic) is ideally suited to the wider philosophy of the book and allows her central thesis – that the republic of imagination is vital to our existence – to be felt throughout.

I do have a number of reservations about the book, however. I wanted more of James Baldwin and less of Mark Twain – the Huck chapter is too long and the final third of the chapter really dragged. But the epilogue on Baldwin is so utterly compelling I felt robbed of a full chapter devoted to his work. I also wonder whether the final chapter pushes the point that ‘life imitates art’ too far. For the first time I had a sense here of Nafisi falling in love with her own ideas, which is a shame considering how restrained the rest of the book is. I also felt uneasy with Nafisi’s penchant for quoting students with whom she disagrees – not owing to the nature of the disagreement, but because the ethics of quoting students seems slightly problematic, particularly given that Nafisi occasionally shoots them down rather mercilessly. But these concerns aside, the book is a triumph, and I do hope Nafisi writes further on James Baldwin.

Most of all, I admire Nafisi’s bravery in challenging the commercialisation of America’s cultural and educational life: we are not robotic ‘consumers’, she argues – we have a duty to feel uncomfortable, disturbed and uneasy when we read books, teach literature and engage with art. And she dares to challenge the ‘politically correct’ academics who would edit ‘offensive’ content from novels in order to avoid ‘traumatising’ students.

While The Republic of Imagination is written primarily for an American audience, Nafisi’s sustained critique of trends in the American higher education system has a lot to say to UK readers and academics as well. Overall, the project is clever and poignant and steers clear of preachiness or schmaltz. But perhaps more impressive is the fact that although this is ostensibly a book about reading, Nafisi covers so many different aspects of life: morality, loneliness, coffee shops, technology, suicide, race, gender. In the end, the republic of imagination is not ‘about’ anything: what it comes down to is a single question. How should we live – as a society and as individuals?

Amy McCauley is Poetry Submissions Editor of New Welsh Review


previous review: The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine
next review: Goldfish Memory


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