Category: MetaBooks

The Real Lolita

Cover image for The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinmanby Sarah Weinman

ISBN 978-0-06-266192-0

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

Lolita, when published, was infamous, then famous, always controversial, always a topic of discussion. It has sold more than sixty million copies worldwide in its sixty-plus years of life. Sally Horner, however, was largely forgotten, except by her immediate family members and close friends.”

In 1948, eleven-year-old Sally Horner was kidnapped by recently released sex offender Frank La Salle, who coerced her into going with him after he caught her shoplifting a notebook from the five and dime in Camden, New Jersey. The kidnapping, however, was anything but simple. La Salle forced Horner to lie to her mother, Ella, saying that he was the father of school friends, and that she had been invited to join the family for their seashore holiday. Ella, a harried single mother, agreed, much to her later regret. Sally would not be seen again for nearly two years, during which time she would travel around the country with her abductor, who posed as her father in public, but had much more sinister intentions in private. If this story sounds somewhat familiar, perhaps you are thinking of Vladamir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita, in which the pedophile Humbert Humbert travels across America with his step-daughter Dolores Haze. Indeed, the Sally Horner case is referenced in the novel, but while Lolita has remained famous, Sally Horner has largely faded from popular memory. In The Real Lolita, Sarah Weinman builds her case for identifying Sally Horner as the true inspiration behind Nabokov’s novel, digging into archives, and conducting interviews, hoping to restore Sally to her rightful place in history.

The Real Lolita expands upon Weinman’s eponymous 2014 essay for Hazlitt magazine. Despite being a lengthy piece, Weinman felt she still was not done with Horner’s story, and in her book she attempts to further flesh out the case of the real girl who may have inspired Nabokov’s famous character. But although Weinman is a thorough and meticulous investigator, in some ways, there is no satisfaction to be had. Very often, the answers to her most burning questions were “we don’t know” or “the records are lost” or “we can only speculate.” And speculate she does, imagining what Sally’s days living with Frank La Salle must have been like, though no diary was kept, and Sally was never known to have spoken of it to her family after the fact. Because La Salle pled guilty in court, she never had to testify against him. Tragically, Sally died in a car accident only two years after her escape, never having seized control of her own story. Where she cannot find direct answers, Weinman tries to provide context, sharing available information, and drawing parallels to other cases of the time.

Although many answers were not forthcoming despite Weinman’s investigation, one of the strengths of The Real Lolita is the way in which it firmly centers Sally’s perspective and experience. Even when writing about the fictional Dolores Haze, Weinman refers to her as Dolores, only using the epithet Lolita when discussing Humbert’s point of view. Weinman never loses sight of the fact that Sally was a real girl who was the victim of a terrible crime. She is deeply sympathetic to what Sally suffered, both before and after her ordeal. Even after her escape, Sally was the victim of a double standard that meant that despite being a child, she was still regarded as tainted at best, and a slut at worst. Speaking to the press, Ella Horner said “whatever Sally has done, I can forgive her,” as if a child needs to be forgiven for being the victim of a crime. Sally’s time with La Salle would be the subject of gossip among her classmates for the rest of her short life, subjecting her to rude remarks, and entitled advances from male peers. As Weinman puts it, “Sally Horner was forever marked.”

I have to confess here that I have never read Lolita, and further admit that I’m not sure I ever will. The very thought of the plot churns my stomach, and even the desire to dig into Weinman’s assessment of Sally Horner’s influence on the plot couldn’t quite bring me to pick it up. Weinman herself notes that Nabokov had a long history of obsession with the theme of pedophilia, which turned up in many of his short works which predate Lolita, and even Sally Horner’s birth. Nabokov’s earliest work on the novel also predates the Sally Horner case, though it would not be published until five years after her escape. Biographers and scholars have found no evidence connecting Nabokov himself to children in that way, and in fact, quite the opposite; in his biography he recounts an episode of abuse in which he was fondled by his uncle, which may perhaps constitute the genesis of his obsession.

Given the above timelines, while the Sally Horner case may have shaped the final product, the concept for Lolita was certainly not inspired by her kidnapping. The Nabokovs, for their part, rigourously denied any connection as a matter of form; they believed in the primacy of art, and “if art was to prevail—and for the Nabokov’s it always did—then explicitly revealing what lay behind the curtain of fiction in the form of a real life case could shatter the illusion of total creative control.” It is up to Weinman, then, to gather circumstantial evidence about what Nabokov knew, and when, about the Sally Horner case. When she went missing, the story was not covered in his local newspapers. No clippings or documentation exist in his archives or papers. There are certainly parallels between to two stories to suggest that Sally’s more widely covered rescue may have helped crystalize Nabokov’s floundering obsession, but no conclusive proof. Yet Sally Horner’s story is worth remembering, whether or not she is the “real” Lolita.

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy

Cover image for Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy by Anne Boyd Riouxby Anne Boyd Rioux

ISBN 978-0-393-25473-0

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“Alcott’s novel is not what it at first appears to be. What seems like a tale from a simpler time turns out to be the product of a difficult and sometimes troubled life. What appears to be a sweet, light story of four girls growing up is also very much about how hard it was (and is) to come of age in a culture that prizes a woman’s appearance over her substance.”

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, a work for girls that had been requested by her publisher. It was not the kind of thing Alcott usually wrote, but she had compelling financial considerations in supporting her parents and siblings that prompted her to take the leap. The result would be a best-selling novel first published in two parts, but known in America today as a single story, which has remained alive through the generations, adapted into stage plays, radio dramas, films, and television mini-series. 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the novel, and in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, University of New Orleans professor Anne Boyd Rioux examines the legacy of the novel in the American canon and popular culture, arguing that while the novel has a special place in readers’ hearts, its acknowledgement as a significant work of American literature has been circumscribed by sexism in a society that continues to devalue women writers, young female readers, and especially works that center their experiences.

Anne Boyd Rioux is an academic, known for her studies on the work of American novelist and poet Constance Fenimore Woolson. However, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is written for a general audience, inclusive of the many types of reader that have appreciated Little Women over the years. The scholarship is not lacking, and the book includes a significant section of notes and references. Rioux clearly comes down in favour of the historical value of the text, and argues for it to be taught more broadly, but she is also able to acknowledge the complexity and contradictions of its feminist legacy, and the many different ways that readers have interpreted Alcott’s choices. In the UK, for example, where the book is often published in two volumes, many readers remain blissfully unaware of a second part of the novel in which (spoilers!) Beth dies, Amy and Laurie marry, and Jo puts her dreams of becoming a writer on hold when she marries Professor Bhaer and opens a school. And American readers who never continued on to Little Men or Jo’s Boys may feel betrayed by Jo giving up her dream, never realizing that she picks up her pen once more in the sequels, and becomes a famous writer.

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy might be considered a biography of both Louisa May Alcott, and the novel she wrote, though significantly more of the book is dedicated to the latter. Whereas the early part of the books draws heavily on existing biographical work about Alcott, the later chapters incorporate more of Rioux’s own exploration and analysis of the work and its legacy. There are chapters dedicated to examining the various editions the book went through, and how the different illustrators have put their mark on, and changed perceptions of, the book over time. I found this section particularly interesting given that the edition of the book I am most familiar with has a cover image, but no interior illustrations whatsoever. Rioux also analyzes the choices made in the various adaptations—including a 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, a 1949 version with June Allyson, and the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder that is best known to my own generation—and the role media played in keeping Little Women alive in the public imagination. This certainly rings true to how the book initially came into my own life; the box set I first read was published simultaneously with the 1994 film adaptation, with an introduction by Anna Quindlen. Rioux notes that the early film versions were heavily driven by romance, despite the significant emphasis placed on familial relationships in the book, but does not delve further into how romance tends to be feminized and devalued.

A significant part of the book is dedicated to addressing the feminist issues that have hindered the work’s path to being considered a classic or taught in schools. In the early days, the book was actually considered too radical and insufficiently Christian, since Alcott’s transcendentalist upbringing did not jive with more conservative Christian practices. The Sunday School market actively encouraged a boycott of her work for many years for this reason. Meanwhile, despite the novel’s initial popularity with boys and girls, adults and children, over the years Little Women’s target audience has been circumscribed, and it has gained a reputation as a sappy novel suitable only for young girls. According to Rioux, the devaluation of books for girls has played a significant role in preventing Little Women from taking its place in the American canon of great novels, alongside works for boys like Tom Sawyer, which has suffered no such limitations. Rioux does acknowledge that the length of the book might also be a limiting factor for teachers, and suggests teaching only the first part of the novel, as it was originally published, to overcome this hurdle.

My own relationship with Little Women has been as complex as this history acknowledges. On first encounter, I found it incredibly tedious, and if memory serves, it was actually Laurie’s romantic mooning that drove me off. On second pass, only a couple of years later, I was gripped by the story, which of course hadn’t changed a jot since my last attempt. This time I was devastated by what I perceived as Laurie’s betrayal of Jo. Yet on rereading the book this year for the first time in well over a decade, I was struck most by its lessons on morality. It is almost incomprehensible that the book was once considered insufficiently Christian given Marmee’s preachy asides and little lessons. This isn’t a book that is easily encompassed, and Rioux does her best to incorporate the complexities and contradictions inherent in Alcott’s legacy, which inexorably shape how we view the book today.

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The Book Thieves

Cover image for The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell translated by Henning Kochby Anders Rydell

Translated by Henning Koch

ISBN 978-0-73522123-9

 “The image of Nazis as anti-intellectual cultural vandals has been persistent, possibly to some degree because it is easy to comprehend, and possibly because we would like to see literature and the written word as fundamentally good. But even the Nazis realized that if there was something that gave more power than merely destroying the word, it was owning and controlling it. There was a power in books.”

The image of Nazis burning books is a striking and pervasive one, because of course it is based in the truth of the pyres that were made in public squares across Germany as the Third Reich rose to power. But in The Book Thieves, Anders Rydell tackles and attempts to recontextualize that image by uncovering the extent to which the Nazis were collectors of stolen literature—not just of valuable manuscripts as you might already be familiar with from Monuments Men—but of books of all types, from all across Europe. Rydell, a Swedish journalist, follows the trail of the pillagers from Berlin to Amsterdam and Paris, and beyond to Vilnius and Thessaloniki, demonstrating the far reach of the Nazi looters. Entire libraries disappeared, sometimes untraceably, into the mists of the war. Rydell chronicles the actors who seized and dispersed the libraries, as well as the modern librarians who now face the unenviable task of uncovering and facing up to the origins of their collections.

For decades, German libraries have tried to ignore or hide the provenance of many of the items in their collections acquired during or as a result of the war. Fly leaves were cut out, and ex libris labels were scraped or torn away. Some libraries went so far as to forge a different provenance for their acquisitions. But a new generation of library professionals have refused to look away any longer, and “they are fighting a retroactive battle against their former colleagues, who for decades have been rubbing out, tearing off, or falsifying the provenance of these books—all to make them blend into the collection.” Without an ex libris, or inscription, most privately owned books are untraceable. But others come from famous libraries, some of which are now lost to history, and others which still operate despite their losses.

While some books were stolen outright from synagogues, libraries, and Freemason’s Lodges, or plundered from abandoned Jewish residences, others were obtained by coercion. Some very rare and valuable items were added to the Goethe Archive by means of an extortionate deal with a Jewish book collector who knew that he would not be able to flee the country with these famous national treasures, and so was forced to sell them for a pittance. Only in 2006 were his descendants compensated for the discrepancy between the value of the collection, and what was paid for it at the time.

The darkest twist in Rydell’s narrative comes in the chapters that address the Jewish scholars and intellectuals whose forced labour made the creation of the Nazi book depositories possible. In Berlin, they were required to translate and explain Hebrew and Yiddish texts for the SS, because there were not enough “Aryan” translators who knew these languages. In Vilnius, Belarus, a group of Jews were put to work sorting the plunder that would be sent back to Germany by the occupiers. This “intellectual slave labor” forced the prisoners into a terrible choice between consigning their books to the invaders and hoping that they would survive the war to perhaps be reclaimed, or keeping them from Nazi hands and seeing them destroyed. They also knew that when the work ran out and there were no more books to sort, they too would be sent to the death camps. A resistance of book smugglers nevertheless emerged in the group.

What is perhaps most interesting about The Book Thieves is trying to understand why the Nazis stole various texts and libraries. The desire for books by national heroes, or to control the image of famous literary Germans shaped some of their work at home. To this end, they also seized control of publishing, literary awards, and even book clubs. In the Jewish libraries, they were seeking an understanding of their “enemy” and searching for evidence of the great Jewish world conspiracy that drove their hatred. The Freemasons were suspect thanks to their international connections, but certain groups within the party were nevertheless desirous of their rumoured occult knowledge, and the libraries that supported it. In the occupied territories, even books that were of no interest for the purposes of Nazi “research” were taken, and often destroyed, in an attempt to crush the unique cultural identities of the people in those countries. In short, it was never as simple as just seizing and burning the work of undesirables, or asking Germans to purge their own collections to this end. Various groups within the party were at work to further the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich,” and books played a part in many of their plans.

The Book Thieves gives greater depth to our understanding of how the Nazis treated books and literature both before and during the war. I also felt it as a sort of professional call to arms, a reminder to librarians everywhere that we can and have been complicit in atrocities for which full restitution can never be made. And the end of the war did not end the thefts; the Red Army stole in kind, not just taking back stolen books, but laying claim to the Russian books that had belonged to an expatriate library in Paris. Individual soldiers also stole books, scattering some of the lost volumes across the world when the armies dispersed. And more than a million books were sent to the Library of Congress by a delegation sent from Washington, D.C. The problem of restitution is not merely a German one, and The Book Thieves is a means to understand both oppression and complicity in an ongoing tragedy.

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The Clothing of Books

the-clothing-of-booksby Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush

ISBN 978-0-525-43275-3

“Like a translation, a cover can be faithful to the book, or it can be misleading. In theory, like a translation, it should be in the service of the book, but this dynamic isn’t always the case.”

When you pick up a book, the first thing you see is the jacket. In most cases, the author of the book has had little or no input into the design. The words do not belong to the writer, but to the publishing house’s copy writers, charged with marketing the book, and to the other writers or critics who have praised the book in blurbs. With the exception of their name, and possibly the title, the author is nowhere to be found. In The Clothing of Books, Jhumpa Lahiri interrogates this tension between form and content, both from her early perspective as a reader, and her later experience as a writer.

The Clothing of Books was originally delivered as the keynote address at the Festival degli Scrittori in 2015. The speech was written and delivered in Italian. As chronicled in her book In Other Words, after completing her 2012 novel The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri moved with her family to Rome, and largely gave up reading and writing in English to focus on her passion for the Italian language. In that book, she also expressed her dislike for translating her own work into English. The Clothing of Books was translated into English by Lahiri’s husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush.

Clocking in at only seventy pages, The Clothing of Books is really an essay published as a small gift book, with a price tag of $7.95 USD. However, it is a very cute little book, cleverly designed by Joan Wong, who also designed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s little book We Should All Be Feminists, as well as the paperback cover for Americanah. The cover flaps fold out to form the two sides of a double breasted jacket, with buttons illustrated on the front flap, and button holes on the back. Combined with graphic effects that mimic stitching and textured fabric, the book looks as if it has been literally clothed for its debut.

Inside, Lahiri contemplates how jackets affected her own reading life. With a librarian for a father, Lahiri borrowed many of her books, which were mostly stripped of their dust jackets before being circulated. With these “naked books,” the author’s words were the first thing she encountered. She also expresses this preference for her own books: “I want the first words read by the reader of my book to be written by me.” Yet she also acknowledges that a naked book is “incomplete, in some ways inaccessible. It lacks a door through which to enter the text. It lacks a face.” At used book sales, jacketless books often languish, unsold.

On the flip side, Lahiri examines covers, both those that fit, and those that do not. She contrasts individual designs with those for part of a European publishing series—American readers, think like the Modern Library, but with contemporary authors rather than classics—regarding the latter as a sort of uniform. Contemplating the relationship between Virginia Woolf, and her sister Vanessa Bell, who painted her covers, Lahiri notes that a designer does not even necessarily have to read the book to capture it, as Bell did not, taking only a summary from her sister. She also reflects on the stereotypes of India that have been evident in designs for various editions of her own books, even those set entirely in America. Taken together, the two angles form a fascinating, if brief, meditation on the role of the jacket in the life of a book.

Not Just Jane

Cover image for Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWeesby Shelley DeWees

ISBN 978-0-06-239462-0

“Of all the wonderful things I experienced during this journey, the best occurred at the end, as I stood in front of a bookshelf full of new titles, each of which introduced me to new women, new worlds, new windows into British history.”

Everyone has heard of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, perhaps the most famous women writers in British literature. All have been the subject of film and television adaptations, and Jane Austen will grace the new £10 bank note being released in Britain in 2017. But do you know Sara Coleridge (yes, she is related to Samuel Taylor) or Catherine Crowe? Perhaps you’ve heard of King George IV’s scandalous mistress, the actress Mary Robinson, but didn’t realize she was also a writer? Shelley DeWees selects seven British women writers of the Romantic and Victorian periods who were at least as famous as Austen and the Brontës during their lifetimes, if not more so, and often outsold them. Not Just Jane shines a light on their less-remembered works, while also showing the difficulties women faced in becoming writers, and the censure they faced when they succeeded.

DeWees’ subjects are not entirely forgotten so much as they are ill-remembered outside the halls of academia. I was familiar with all of the women from the Romantic period, which is the area I focused on during my undergraduate degree. Funnily enough, I even referenced Charlotte Turner Smith my review of The Fire This Time a few months ago. I was less familiar with the Victorians, with the exception of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. If you’ve never heard of Braddon, try to imagine a novelist as prolific as Nora Roberts and as famous as J.K. Rowling, and then imagine that almost no one has heard of that novelist a hundred years from now.

In large part, DeWees is not analyzing why the Brontës and Austen have been remembered, and her seven women have been forgotten. She ventures a few guesses, such as how Charlotte Brontë’s legacy was bolstered by a well-timed biography penned by Elizabeth Gaskell, who was herself an extremely successful novelist. She also hazards a guess that some of the women were willingly forgotten because of their scandalous and unconventional personal lives. But for the most part, she is concerned with illuminating the forgotten writers, rather than with trying to figure out exactly why they are not well-remembered today.

All seven women have interesting biographies that illustrate the problems commonly faced by Romantic and Victorian women. Many of them were married young to degenerate men who ran up debts they could not pay. The long-suffering wives then took up the pen to pay off their husbands’ debts and support their children. It was extremely hard to obtain a divorce, and both Smith and Robinson ultimately left their husbands without the legal niceties. Both Robinson and Braddon would become tabloid scandals for their extra-marital activities, Robinson for her role as the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and Braddon because she lived with and bore children to a man whose first wife was still living, but was confined to an insane asylum in Ireland. These women faced censure for the contents of their personal lives as well as the content of their novels, their punishment for being so bold as to publish under their own names rather than anonymously or “By a Lady.”

Perhaps because the works of her subjects are not always well-known, DeWees references Austen and Brontës frequently, using examples from their work to explain a social custom of the period, or point out a common literary trope. As she moves into the Victorian period, the works of Charles Dickens often fill this role in the text. At other times she hold Austen and the Brontes up for stylistic contrast, showing how her seven women are different, and often less comforting than their better-remembered counterparts.  DeWees’ background is in ethnomusicology, and her readings sometimes seem selectively chosen or read to make a point. Not Just Jane is at its weakest when it tries to explain why, but shines when the women themselves step to the forefront. DeWees ably highlights the gaps in our knowledge as she advocates for an expansion of the canon.

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Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

Cover image for Bibliotech by John Palfrey by John Palfrey

ISBN 9780465042999

“We do not know what form libraries and the web itself will take over the next ten to twenty years—whether they will move towards an increasingly commercial, locked-down, profit-oriented set of systems or toward a balanced ecosystem that includes compelling public options. The better future is one in which we value both economic incentives and the strong public interest in freedom of information and information privacy.”

In Bibliotech, former head of the Harvard Law School Library and Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) co-founder John Palfrey sets out to make the case for the continued relevance of libraries in the digital era, and sets out his vision for how libraries must evolve in order to survive the transition. Palfrey may not be a librarian by education, but he has significant experience in the field, and it appears that his core values—open access to information, intellectual freedom, individual privacy, and freedom of express—align with librarians, even if not everyone in the field shares his vision for the future.

In his introduction, Palfrey hits on many of the key arguments for why libraries are still relevant in the information age. Notably, libraries are among “the last physical, public spaces that are not devoted to commercial pursuits.” As such, libraries “function as essential equalizing institutions in our society,” because without them, “the world of the haves and the have-nots will grow further and further apart.” In a world awash in information, libraries are important not because they provide access to a scarce resource, but because they can help people navigate the flood, and discern reliable, authoritative information. Also crucial is the library’s public service motive; while a for-profit company will have a natural interest in directing users to their own resources, the mission of the library is to connect a user with the best available information, regardless of the source. And a library will do all that while also doing battle to protect your privacy and intellectual freedom, instead of selling your personal information to advertisers.

After making an initial, and passionate, case for the continuing necessity of libraries, Palfrey goes on to articulate a clear explanation of why this is a difficult time for these institutions. In addition to providing access to paper books, libraries are now also expected to provide access to that same book as an e-book (Kindle and ePub), an audiobook, and an mp3, while also growing a collection of music CDs, movies, and online databases, and they are expected to do all this on frozen or shrinking acquisition budgets, and without any additional staff hours. The budgetary crisis is such that Palfrey laments of ever finding enough resources, short of a new philanthropist emerging to become the Andrew Carnegie of the digital era. At the same time, libraries must figure out how to preserve access to all the new digital resources as formats shift every few years, and the hardware and software necessary to access old files becomes increasingly unavailable. The information in these first two sections is clear and well-articulated, and should do a good job of convincing most readers why libraries are still important, but also at a crucial crossroads.

Early in Bibliotech, Palfrey states openly that his target audience is the public, “all those who do not work in libraries and who should be taking a greater interest in the fate of these essential knowledge institutions.” He aims to make clear to these folks why libraries are still important, and how they need to evolve. However, he sometimes loses sight of this stated purpose, since many subsequent sections are more internal in nature, and clearly directed at a professional library audience. For example, he writes that “if the DPLA is successfully built and the public never knows about it but comes to love their local libraries even more, then the DPLA movement will have been an enormous success.” In addition to a lack of clarity about his intended audience, this statement also shows a misunderstanding of a deeper problem, namely that lack of knowledge about the resources and services the library provides is a tremendous issue that contributes to the persistent idea that libraries are becoming obsolete or irrelevant. We do need digital platforms, but more than that, we need platforms that are known and valued by more people than librarians and school teachers in order to ensure their continued support.

While our physical libraries need to be highly individualistic spaces tailored to serve the needs of the community in which they reside, Palfrey argues that our future digital endeavours must be much more collaborative, harnessing the numbers and power of the library community. As we continue to digitize our existing works, while also archiving the massive amounts of data that are now born digital, we need to link these efforts together into systems that avoid multiple institutions redoing the same labour. What Palfrey does not touch on here is the fact that while libraries certainly need to collaborate rather than compete, each institution must also inevitably have an eye on preserving its own sufficiency if another member of the network should fail. However, he does spend a chapter on how the existing copyright statutes complicate such efforts, though he does not seem optimistic about the chances of reforming them.

Like libraries in analog-to-digital era, this book straddles an awkward divide, sometimes addressing the public, sometimes librarians. The breadth is possibly more than most members of the public will be interested in reading, and the depth is insufficient for those already well-versed in the issues. Bibliotech is worth reading for an articulate description of why libraries still matter, and the challenges they face, but the map to the road forward is general rather than specific, and Palfrey basically rules out making progress through additional public funding for libraries, or democratic reform of copyright laws. This likely stems from a desire to give libraries a way to move forward without a change in external conditions, but while we must continue to do the best we can with what we have, nor should we give up on needed reforms simply because the political environment is difficult.

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Cover image for A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel  A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Cover image for Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisiby Azar Nafisi

ISBN 0-8129-7106-X

“If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was now in constant retreat.”

In 1995, at her wits end with the control the Islamic regime exerted over intellectual life at Iranian universities, American-educated academic Azar Nafisi resigned her post at the University of Allameh Tabatabai in Tehran. But rather than give up teaching altogether, she assembled a group of her best female students, and invited them into her home for a private weekly seminar in Western literature. For two years, seven Iranian women of varying ages and backgrounds met to discuss works such as The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and Washington Square, creating a small oasis of intellectual freedom in the midst of a repressive political climate.

The seven women came from different families of varying religiosity. Some were married, while others were single, or even divorced. We get a sense of their differing circumstances, but Nafisi must necessarily be somewhat vague, or even misleading, in order to protect those who are still in Iran. The women, regardless of their disparate backgrounds, were hungry for literature for its own sake. They did not need that literature to be explicitly political, in fact better not, but they were united in their refusal to let the regime dictate what was or was not worth reading. Behind closed doors, the women are sassy and even sacrilegious. Yassi, the youngest student, and one from a traditional background, snipes “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife,” snarkily paraphrasing Jane Austen’s famous opening line. The dire restrictions of the regime spark rebellion even among the faithful.

After opening with the private class, and a discussion of Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading, Part II steps back in time, to the years immediately after the Islamic revolution, and illuminates the increasingly chilling atmosphere that eventually led Nafisi to depart from public academic life and set up her own private class in her home. Nafisi recounts how the University of Tehran became a battleground for rival political forces, with Communists and Islamists fighting for control of this crucial symbolic space. Interruptions and cancelled classes became the norm as the balance of power shifted towards the radical student organizations. Anyone who has walked around a university campus has seen bulletin boards filled with posters for student groups and events, but in Tehran, “there were reprimands posted about the color of our uniforms, codes of conduct, but never a notice about a talk, a film, or a book.” Literature and learning were forced to take a back seat to current events.

Reading Lolita in Tehran gives a cogent account of the chain of events that slowly stifled intellectual life in Iran, while also acknowledging the extent to which the narrative is a product of time and distance. “In retrospect, when historical events are gathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time,” Nafisi cautions. She left her first academic post at the University of Tehran years earlier, as part of a protest against forcing women to don the veil, a cause which seems hopeless in retrospect. But at that time, it still seemed conceivable that opposition to the requirement could triumph. Using her journals, Nafisi is able to balance the retrospective view with how events felt in the thick of things. For some, the narrative may seem too mired in the personal, but this provides some sense of how it felt to try to go about daily life in the midst of revolution and war.

Indeed, the blurring relationship between the personal and political, and the personal and professional is an important topic here.  A private class under such circumstances creates a relationship among the participants that is deeper and more complex than what typically develops in a classroom. Nafisi finds herself becoming a friend and confidant to her students, in addition to a teacher, and the social aspect of the gathering of people with a common love of literature is an important emotional support beyond mere intellectual stimulation. But if Nafisi accepts these blurring relationships, she rails against the political intrusion on the personal realm:  “At the core of our fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives.” Though Nafisi is resistant here to the intrusion of the political on the personal realm, we also see glimmerings of her later ideas about the importance of the imaginative realm to political freedom, which she more fully expresses in her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination.

Howard’s End is on the Landing

howards-end-is-on-the-landingby Susan Hill

ISBN 978-1846682667

“But if the books I have read helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA.”

Searching through her home library for a missing book that she wanted to read, British author and literary critic Susan Hill discovered that her house was full of books that she hadn’t read, or was long overdue to reread. She had even forgotten that she owned some of them. Hidden in the dark nooks and overflowing crannies of her English country cottage were literary treasures and fond memories by the dozen. Forswearing any new purchases, Hill embarked on a year of reading from her own collection, revisiting both her own reading life, and the long history of English literature.

For the month of May, in an effort to get caught up on some of the books I have bought but not read, I decided to spend a month only reading books I already own. Since I bought Susan Hill’s memoir about reading from the home library at least a year ago, it seemed like the most appropriate book with which to kick off my month-long challenge. However, Howard’s End is on the Landing turned out to be a mixed blessing in that regard; Hill’s year involves a lot of rereading, and I found myself itching for books I’ve already read, even though my own challenge was mainly supposed to be about whittling down the TBR pile a bit. I may need to spend another month sometime soon just reading books I have already read and loved.

literary-dnaAs with most memoirs about reading, Hill and I agreed about some titles, and then profoundly disagreed about others. It is a special kind of defamiliarization to see books you love or hate through the eyes of someone with the opposite feelings, particularly when they can articulate their opinion without condescension to those who disagree. Hill expresses her tastes clearly, but with very little implied judgement about what others might choose to read. On the subject of not enjoying a book, Hill writes, “It is always us, never the book, or almost never.” Her memoir also emphasizes how vast the world of literature is; two people can both be widely read, and yet have very little overlap between their libraries. Hill reminded me of many books I still want to read, and introduced me to many more I’d never heard of.

Hill’s caveats to her challenge were those that allowed her to continue doing her job: she would still borrow academic books from the library, and read advance review copies. However, there’s nothing in Howard’s End is on the Landing about the temptations of new books that cannot be purchased, or the siren song of the public library. Hill seems to have dived into her own collection without a backward glance. Or rather, the only backward glances, are back in time. As someone who published her own first novel at eighteen, and has worked in the English literary world ever since, Hill is well connected and able to reflect personally as well as critically on some of the books and authors she is addressing. If the first such anecdotes feel like pretentious name-dropping to you, I’d advise you to put down the book, as Hill has met a lot of literary luminaries from T.S. Eliot, to E. M. Forester, to Roald Dahl.

A good portion of the second half of the book is devoted to Hill’s effort to mentally cull her library down to a list of just forty books she would take with her to that hoary chestnut, the hypothetical desert island. In many cases, it is an agonizing debate about how to choose just one Shakespearean play, or only one of Virginia Woolf’s novels. Only P.G. Wodehouse and Anthony Trollope are granted two places on the list. The list is a distillation of the fact that Hill’s library is quite British, fairly male, and very white, though she spends a month of her year reading only women writers, twelve of whom are admitted to the final forty. But however you feel about Hill’s own reading, her memoir is an invitation to travel back through your own literary history, and consider the books that form your “literary DNA.”

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book-memoirs More reading memoirs:

One for the Books by Joe Queenan

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Why I Read by Wendy Lesser