The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books

Cover image for The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi by Azar Nafisi

ISBN 978-0-670-02606-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes have been checked against a finalized copy.

“I found it intriguing that he had suggested not that Americans did not understand our books but that they didn’t understand their own. In an oblique way, he made it seem as if Western literature belonged more to the hankering souls of the Islamic Republic of Iran than to the inhabitants of the land that had given birth to them. How could this be? And yet it is true that people who brave censorship, jail and torture to gain access to books or music or movies or works of art tend to hold the whole enterprise in an entirely different light.”

The story of Azar Nafisi’s latest work begins at one of the local independent book shops here in Seattle, where she was approached by a nameless young man, also an expatriate Iranian. In the midst of this Mecca for books at the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the young man challenged her, saying that it was useless to talk about books in a country that would never value or understand them in the same way as an Iranian who had faced imprisonment or torture for photocopying thousands of pages from classic works like Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms. The encounter haunted Nafisi for years, driving her to conceive the “republic of imagination,” the land of imaginative knowledge that exists within books and is open, without restriction, to anyone who opens those pages. A place where “the only requirements for entry are an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane.” Nafisi argues passionately for the value and importance of books and “imaginative knowledge” in a society that is more concerned with practical information.

The Republic of Imagination is a peculiar book that combines close reading with memoir and political discourse to create an unusual hybrid work. The literary analysis is rather dry, and Nafisi perhaps assumes too much about our foreknowledge of these works, but she succeeds rather well in the other two realms. As usual, she is at her best when she is framing her understanding of the books in question with her unique personal experiences, writing from the perspective of someone who started on the outside, but has since come in. Indeed, Nafisi’s decision to finally take American citizenship in 2008 is a key part of the story. As a new citizen, she celebrates the power of literature to cultivate an enlightened citizenry, capable of understanding nuance, exercising sympathy, and placing information in its proper context. And as she immersed herself in American history in preparation for the citizenship exam, she discovered than the founding fathers shared her enthusiasm for the role of a well-rounded education in promoting their democratic ideals.

Nafisi’s original outline of The Republic of Imagination called for her to discuss dozens of books. The final version is a somewhat more modest endeavour. The chapters are rather unbalanced, beginning with a one hundred fifty page discussion of Huckleberry Finn. Carson McCullers gets eighty pages for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Mute, and Sinclair Lewis a mere sixty pages for Babbit. One gets the sense Nafisi could have written the entire book about Huck, who becomes an almost mythical entity with a life of his own; everything ties back to Huck. The epilogue, not included in the ARC, and estimated at an additional twelve pages, comes in at thirty-seven pages in the finished book.  Not so much an epilogue, Nafisi has shoe-horned in an abortive half chapter on James Baldwin rather than a proper conclusion. What is evident here is Nafisi’s personal connection to the texts in question, and the individuality of each person’s reading. These particular books have spoken powerfully to her, and informed her conception of the American identity, but different books might speak more strongly to others.

Although not every reader will connect to the books Nafisi has chosen to feature here, she makes strong argument for the value of literature in our society. However, freedom allows for everything, even complacency. Just as some citizens of democratic nations are too apathetic to exercise their right to vote, so too they take for granted the value of their other freedoms, not least of all art in all its many forms. Nafisi refuses to bow to “the notion that passion and imagination are superfluous, that the humanities have no practical or pragmatic use or relevance and should thus be subservient to other, more ‘useful’ fields.” It is a paradox that a democratic society grants us the freedom to pursue such passions, but not necessarily the wisdom to value them. Nafisi reframes art as “imaginative knowledge,” which is different from information, but no less important. In the introduction, Nafisi writes, “The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves as a nation. Works of imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.” But really, it is Nafisi who is the canary, and she is sounding the alarm.

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