Category: MetaBooks

The Year of Reading Dangerously

Cover image for The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Millerby Andy Miller

ISBN 978-0-06-144618-4

“It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.” 

One day, Andy Miller realized that in the three years since becoming a father, he had only managed to read one book for pleasure. And while The Da Vinci Code was an entertaining page turner, great literature it was not. There were many greater, more redoubtable books in the world, books that he had lied about having read, no less, because he felt he ought to have read them. So Miller created the official List of Betterment, and set out to put an end to his lying literary ways once and for all. What starts out as a list of thirteen books for self-betterment turns into a year-long project involving more than fifty titles.

Miller’s training as a liar about books came from the years he spent working as a bookseller. There he discovered that customers didn’t really want to know the truth about whether or not he’d read a book or if he liked it. They simply wanted their own good judgement confirmed as they made their purchases. He found himself selling the same handful of books over and over again, though he had read none of them cover to cover. His literary honour, once impugned, never recovered, even long after he left the book shop behind.

After three years of reading nothing but Dan Brown, Miller makes his improbable return to regular reading with the somewhat obscure The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Miller summarizes this rather surreal book with humour, but as with many of his chosen titles, I was not moved to interest in reading it. Miller and I had opposite literary tastes in many respects—he was bored by Austen but adored Dickens, though we found some common ground in George Eliot—but that didn’t stop me from being entertained by his journey through literature.

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Year of Reading Dangerously is that Miller isn’t the sort of person you would expect to experience such a severe reading drought. With an undergraduate degree in English, a wife he met while working at a book shop, and job as an editor at the time of writing, the fact that Miller didn’t read for pleasure for three years is actually quite remarkable. If life could overwhelm his love of books, really it could happen to anyone. But with a fifty-page-a-day dose of literature, he is soon back to slipping away from his in-laws at Christmas in order to finish Anna Karenina, and using vacation days to visit the British Library in order to read rare books cover-to-cover.

If The Year of Reading Dangerously has a drawback, it is that Miller’s style is rather self-indulgent, including the wanton use of footnotes, and an entire chapter in the form of a stilted fan letter to Michel Houellebecq. Miller readily admits his editor was right to want to cut the letter, but he has decided to include anyway. But when Miller isn’t letting his sense of humour get carried away, this is an enjoyable tale about a return to books, even if the subtitle is a bit grandiose. Reading probably hasn’t saved Miller’s life, but it has certainly enriched it.

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An Unnecessary Woman

Cover image for An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine by Rabih Alameddine

ISBN 978-0-8021-294-0

“There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment. Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear as and concise as your stories.”

Seventy-two year old Aaliya has lived a retired life in Beirut ever since her husband left her after only four years of marriage, when she was just twenty years old. Laying claim to the marital home, a small apartment in a four storey building, Aaliya builds a quiet life for herself, working in a bookshop by day, and translating twentieth century literature into Arabic by night. Each year she chooses a new project, using an English and a French translation of her title of choice as the source material for her own translations. Even the civil war and subsequent unrest that shakes Beirut cannot disturb her routine overmuch. Aaliya has held on to her home and her independence for more than five decades, despite repeated efforts by her family to claim the apartment from her, until her eldest half-brother’s latest attempt to foist responsibility for their extremely elderly mother onto Aaliya’s shoulders finally shakes her routine irrevocably.

Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel follows the first person narrative of a woman at once brave and fragile, and interrogates the difference between loneliness and solitude. At first glance, Aaliya’s routine seems solitary but purposeful. She enjoyed a long career as a bookseller until the shop closed four years ago and she retired. In her spare time, she has translated thirty-seven works of world literature into Arabic, including such massive titles as Anna Karenina and The Book of Disquiet.  But as we follow Aaliya’s train of thought over the course of a few days surrounding her brother’s unwelcome visit, the cracks in her façade become clear.

After her divorce, there are only two significant figures in Aaliya’s life, her shop assistant, Ahmad, and her friend, Hannah. However, it becomes apparent that the decades-past end of these two relationships have left scars that prevent her from forming new bonds. Even though she has lived in the same building for five decades, where her original landlord’s daughter is now the landlady, she is not close to her neighbours. The other women in her building meet every morning for coffee on the stoop above hers, but while Aaliya often listens at the window to their conversations, sharing their joys and sorrows, she never joins them, preferring to occupy herself with her translations. And although Aaliya is certainly an experienced translator, no one has ever seen her work. Furthermore, she is convinced no one would ever want to see it, since her works are translations of translations, because she has forbidden herself to translate any work originally published in English or French, the two languages besides Arabic that she speaks.

An Unnecessary Woman chronicles Aaliya’s increasingly disquieted ruminations, during a period when her usual routines can bring her no comfort. She is particularly disturbed by her inability to settle on a book to translate as the New Year approaches, threatening the very system she has built her life around. Though the action is sparse, Alameddine’s striking way with words, particularly playing with similar sounding words, gives Aaliya a strong voice. Of her early marriage, she says that she was “gifted to the first unsuitable suitor to appear at our door.” Of her mother’s inability to understand the failure of Aaliya’s marriage, she remarks “in her world, husbands were omnipotent, not impotent.” Alameddine’s metaphors are also noteworthy. “When I think of him, my memory’s eyes have cataracts,” says Aaliya of her inability to recall what her stepfather looked like. “I am my family’s appendix, its unnecessary appendage,” she says of her early home life. Alameddine’s carefully crafted prose and command of world literature turn this quiet work into a force to be reckoned with.

Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

Cover image for Why I Read by Wendy Lesserby Wendy Lesser

ISBN 978-1-250-06209-3

“When I ask myself why I read literature, I am not really asking about motivation. I am asking what I get from it: what delights have I received over the years, what rewards can I expect to glean.”

As the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, and a novelist in her own right, Wendy Lesser has spent a lot of time thinking about what makes literature great, and what draws us to books again and again. In Why I Read, Lesser takes a personal look at what she seeks in fiction, and expects to gain from the experience of reading. Lesser identifies six characteristics including plot and character, the space between, novelty, authority, grandeur and intimacy, and elsewhere that define the many great books she has read over the course of sixty years.

As the personal pronoun in the title makes clear, Why I Read is an entirely a personal work, but one that balances somewhere between literary memoir and literary criticism. Though Lesser discusses many books, this work is entirely without reference to any of the critics, theorists, or philosophers that have gone before her. Thus Lesser’s work isn’t literary criticism in the academic sense, but more a personal theory of how reading works. Her theories come with numerous caveats and addendums, disclaimers and counter examples. Her willingness to discount her own opinions for the sake of seeming humble threatens to undermine their weight with the reader.

Although she focuses mostly on the “Great Books,” Lesser also makes some detours into genre fiction. While Lesser despises the self-consciousness of James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly its desire to innovate, Why I Read is itself a very self-conscious work, if not in the sense of being concerned with novelty. Rather, the self-consciousness is evident when we see Lesser working hard to justify her love of the less reputable genres of mystery and science fiction. Still, this self-consciousness about literary value raises some interesting insights into genre fiction. Pondering the topic of mysteries Lesser writes, “In the best mysteries, there is always a residue—of doubt, of anxiety, of concern about our social welfare. It is this residue which distinguishes rereadable mysteries from the run-of-the-mill one-timers.”

Despite some decent points, overall Lesser’s discussion is more interesting in the particulars than in generalities. Though I ended with a long list of interesting-sounding books to read, titles which Lesser wrote about with eloquence and passion, the connecting pieces left me unmoved. For every sharp-eyed insight, there are many pages of uncertain pondering and equivocating that made this short book feel remarkably long.

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Novel Living: Collecting, Decorating, and Crafting with Books

Cover image for Novel Living by Lisa Occhipintiby Lisa Occhipinti

ISBN 978-1-61769-087-7

“We all know the standard interior decorating practice of adding a mirror to make a room appear larger. Books are mirrors of a different kind; they reflect our values, our thoughts, and what we hold dear, adding another type of breadth to a room.”

In Novel Living, artist Lisa Occhipinti offers a diverse volume that covers collecting, displaying, and caring for your books. A fourth section follows on her previous book, The Repurposed Library, with nine arts and crafts that can be made from books that have reached the end of their useful lifespan in their original form.

Collecting Books

Occhipiniti’s advice for collecting books and creating a library is relatively basic, and will be more useful to someone just starting out than to anyone who works in libraries or already has a book collection. Her advice includes setting parameters for the collection, and a practical guide to understanding the condition terms used for books in order to facilitate buying online.

Creating a Library

Image of the gallery table from Novel Living by Lisa OcchipintiNovel Living presents a variety of creative and attractive display options, though many of them will not be space-conscious enough for those who have a lot of books and need to be more pragmatic about how they are stored. However, the basic gallery table is an example of a display that is both attractive and functional; coffee table books can be exhibited beneath the glass, leaving the top free to be used for practical purposes when needed. In general, the book is beautifully designed, laid out, and photographed, and this is particularly evident in this section, which shows off Occhipinti’s beautifully crafted book dioramas, and artfully arranged shelves. However, the attention to art occasionally overshadows the book’s more practical aspects. For example, the book lacks an index.

Preserving and Conserving

For those who love old books, or have a habit of rereading their favourites until they fall apart, the third section offers a do-it-yourself guide for rehabilitating books that have been loved too well. With clearly illustrated instructions, Occhipinti demonstrates how to replace endpapers and covers, which can be an ideal solution for preserving beloved books with sound book blocks, but failing exteriors. Other projects in this section include creating a slip case, and tipping in a loose page.

Although Occhipinti’s basic conservation tips are generally sound, she very briefly mentions brushing mold off a book with a stiff brush. However, dealing with moldy books is more complicated than a single sentence can encompass. It fails to cover the difference between active and inactive mold, and makes no mentions of health and safety precautions. Mold removal is not really a conservation project suited for beginners, since improper mold removal can be hazardous to your health, or spread through your home or book collection if not completed properly. Unless the book has a lot of value, be it historical or sentimental, a moldy book has generally reached the end of its life.

Crafting with Books

Having proved her bona fides as a book lover in the preceding sections, Occhipinti turns her attention to the potentially controversial: books as crafting material. For books that can’t be rehabilitated, or have otherwise outlived their usefulness, Occhipinti’s book crafts offer a second lease on life. Novel Living includes a guide to websites for checking the value of a book before repurposing it. However, crafting makes up a relatively small portion of this book relative to Occhipinti’s previous work, The Repurposed Library. Even for those who cannot possibly imagine cutting up a book, however decrepit, many of the projects in this volume involve scanning portions of the book or cover and using prints, rather than crafting with the book itself.

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

On Paper by Nicholas Basbanes

On Paper

Cover image for On Paper by Nicholas A. Basbanesby Nicholas A. Basbanes

ISBN 978-0-307-27964-4

“Without paper, there would be no printing, one of many instances in which scholars have lumped the pair together as allied technical advancements, with paper usually getting the shorter shrift of the two, especially in the impact they have had on the diffusion of culture.”

After a seemingly endless series of tiresome articles on the death of the codex, some people seem to be slowly coming around to the idea that the paper book might not be finished after all. As the paper and electronic mediums learn to coexist, journalist and bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes brings us a history of paper, the substance that allowed printing and many other industries to flourish. Basbanes’ interest in paper includes both how it is made, and the many and varied uses to which it has been put during its two thousand year history. On Paper delves into the diverse use of paper products from bandages to paper cartridges for guns to toilet paper and beyond while also exploring the cultural significance of the medium. Basbanes’ exploration of paper as art ranges from origami to architectural blueprints, and even to the humble sketchbook that made the idea of thinking on paper possible for such imaginative thinkers as Leonardo Da Vinci and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Starting off his narrative with a wide lens, Basbanes examines early paper making in China and Japan, and their modern Asian descendants before tracing paper making to Europe via the Middle East, where it was used for both religion and commerce. He digs up little known artefacts from the history of paper, including the Japanese use of unmanned paper balloons to send bombs across the Pacific to the mainland United States during World War II, which the government and press covered up at the time. However, in the latter part of the book, Basbanes’ scope narrows and becomes more Amerocentric, focusing on early American paper making, the modern tree-based paper making industry in North America, and concluding with a chapter on the paper ephemera of 9/11. Asia and the Middle East, and even most of Europe, disappear almost entirely from view. Similarly, although Basbanes profiles a paper maker that focuses on recycled fibres, the environment does not figure much into his narrative.

Basbanes clearly takes his research seriously, approaching his work as a reporter, conducting extensive on-site visits and interviews with modern paper makers, craft and industrial alike, and a variety of scholars, historians, archivists and librarians with an interest in the medium. His excellent contacts and ability to gain access to private collections and even secure government facilities stand the reader in good stead. His extensive field research includes visiting Japanese and Chinese traditional paper makers, where he even carefully notes who has done the translating for each encounter, since his subjects usually do not speak English. Though the book was published in 2013, Basbanes worked on it for many years before it was finally printed, and his journalism led him to the doorstep of Tony Mendez, who effected the escape of six American diplomats from Iran mostly with fake and forged papers, long before Mendez’s story became widely known through his memoir and Ben Affleck’s film adaptation. Basbanes also pays a visit to the plant that produces the security paper on which American currency is printed, where they allow him to view all but the final step.

I grew up in a mill town, so I already knew a thing or two about paper production before reading On Paper, but I had never given much thought to the creation of paper from materials other than the wood pulp that is the industry standard today. However, early papers, particularly in Europe, were commonly made from linen rags, finally explaining the purpose of the rag-picking beggar in many a historical novel. The general requirement for something to be considered paper is that it be made of cellulose fibres, and many natural sources other than wood pulp fit that criteria. How we make paper has changed over the centuries and millennia, even as we continue to come up with novel uses for it, but our focus is always on the product, and rarely on the production. On Paper is a fascinating work in that it foregrounds the medium and the various purposes it has been put to, forcing the reader’s attention to something which, especially when reading, is generally ignored unless there is something wrong with it. But Basbanes goes so far as to draw attention to the very paper on which his own book is printed, profiling the manufacturer that provides the majority of high quality printing paper to American publishing houses. To read this book is to briefly undertake a fundamental shift in perspective from message to medium.

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Cover image for A History of Reading by Alberto ManguelYou might also like A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

A History of Reading

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

ISBN 978-0-14-312671-3

“Since the earliest vestiges of prehistoric civilization, human society has tried to overcome the obstacles of geography, the finality of death, the erosion of oblivion. With a single act—the incision of a figure on a clay tablet—that first anonymous writer suddenly succeeded in all these seemingly impossible feats.”

Originally published in 1996 in the early days of the digital age, A History of Reading has been rereleased, but not significantly updated, with a new introduction by the author. Alberto Manguel’s history delves into many diverse and even tangential subjects, from the invention of writing (and thereby reading) to the invention of printing, from a history of how reading has been taught to a history of reading aloud, traveling from Greece to Japan in the process. Some of these topics relate more closely to writing or publishing than to reading itself, but really, all are inextricably intertwined, as Manguel aptly demonstrates.  Each topic is illustrated with vivid historical examples and case studies, though Manguel also draws frequently on his own personal history of reading. Some readers may find these parts dry, if they don’t care about his personal reading, or perhaps even pretentious, since his own reading is both prodigious and multilingual. Personally, I found these sections interesting precisely because they differed from my own unilingual experience, and because I didn’t find Manguel to be either condescending or prescriptive about how others read. In fact, he rages against prescriptive dictates, chafing at categories, and deriding the practice of designating certain books as only being appropriate for a particular audience

Though Manguel has not updated his text to extend beyond the CD-ROM that was the height of reading technology at the original time of writing, the short introduction at the beginning of this new edition makes his feelings on the subject abundantly clear. Referencing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he writes, “Frollo fears that the new technology will annihilate the preceding one; he forgets that our creative capacities are prodigious and that we can always find use for yet another instrument. We don’t lack ambition.” In short, we should, as we have always done, choose the format best adapted to each individual context. Perhaps because he delves so far into the past and covers such a broad expanse of history, the absence of the last twenty or so years doesn’t seem all that significant in the grand scheme of things. In a later chapter, discussing the invention of the printing press, Manguel dryly notes, “”it may be useful to bear in mind that printing did not, in spite of the obvious ‘end-of-the-world’ predications, eradicate the taste for handwritten text.” In fact, most early printed texts sought to emulate the style and appearance of the hand-scribed book, just as e-readers now attempt to mimic the turn of a page on a screen. Manguel observes, “It is interesting to note how often a technological development—such as Gutenberg’s—promotes rather than eliminates that which it is supposed to supersede, making us aware of old-fashioned virtues we might have otherwise either overlooked or dismissed as of negligible importance.” So while Manguel does not directly address the e-reading revolution, there is ample discussion of the subject of new reading technologies throughout history, which in turn serve to illuminate more recent inventions.

Given Manguel’s distaste for the tyranny of categories, it is perhaps not surprising that his own work straddles borders, a little esoteric for some general readers, but insufficiently rigorous and overly personal for academics. The mistake would be to take this brief survey of many related subjects, and mistake it for an in-depth treatment of a complex topic. In his conclusion, Manguel deftly highlights that fact that there could be many histories of reading, and that no one history is definitive. His book is titled, after all, A History of Reading, not The History of Reading (note the indefinite and definite articles that precede each). An ideal history of reading would be unlimited in length, and would contain information that is now lost to history, and photographs that were never taken. And of course, it would be incomplete, since the history of reading is ongoing. But Manguel does manage to both inform and inspire, encapsulating the power and beauty of reading, and the many and varied cultural practices that have grown up around it. If his prose is sometimes a little purple as he waxes poetic on the joys of reading, perhaps we do well to occasionally be reminded exactly how amazing and powerful a tool it really is

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The Strange Library

Cover image for The Strange Library by Haruki Murakamiby Haruki Murakami

Translated by Ted Goossen

ISBN 978-0-385-35430-1

“Our worlds are all jumbled together—your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t.”

A boy visits the library on his way home after school to return his books and pick up some new reading material. A librarian he doesn’t recognize refers him down to the basement, where his curiosity and quest for knowledge about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire land him in hot water. Entrapped in the “Reading Room” by a bald old man who plans to fatten up his brains with knowledge before eating them, the boy must find a way to lull his jailor into complacency, and escape without leaving behind the sheep man or the mute girl who are also locked in the labyrinth beneath the library.

Libraries are a recurring theme in Haruki Murakami’s fiction, but rarely are they the benign institutions we are familiar with. They tend to have a certain power, but also a certain darkness. In The Strange Library, the sheep man gives voice to what may be the source of both the power and the suspicion Murakami imbues them with: “If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would be the payoff for them?” From this cynicism, Murakami spins a dark and phantasmagoric tale of entrapment and escape. Narrated in a simple, straightforward style that counterpoints the bizarre events, The Strange Library is surreal in the manner of a dream or, in this case, a nightmare. The strangeness goes mostly unremarked within the story and indeed seems almost natural, but when you try to explain it to someone else it sounds completely nonsensical.

This book was first published in Japan in 2005, but is being released in English for the first time, with art direction and design by Chip Kidd who has fashioned it with more attention to form than function. (NB: The edition being published in the UK by Harvill Secker has a different design). Two overlapping cover flaps open up and down, while the pages inside open left to right as usual. The cover flaps need to be folded back and held behind the book while reading, making this slim, trade-sized volume surprisingly ungainly. The text is bulked out with grainy illustrations, and though the chapters are numbered, the pages are not. While the design is interesting, it makes the book somewhat awkward to read. The final paragraph of the book is easy to miss, centered alone on the final page of the book in much smaller type than the rest of the text.  A lot has gone into the visual design of the book, but the attention is more to aesthetics than utility.

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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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