Q2 Challenge Report 2015

Another quarter of the year is gone and summer is upon us. June in particular was a busy month for me, so I was anxious to check in on my challenges, worried that I may have let my attention slip and headed back into my old habits.

2015 Goodreads Challenge

2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge LogoAt the beginning of the year, I set my reading meter to 116, planning to slow down and focus on my second goal. But unless I have more busy months like June, I’m currently on track to exceed last year’s total of 130 books. So far this year I have read 71 books, putting me at 61% complete only halfway through the year. However, if it means I end up reading even more diverse books, so much the better. But I was a little worried that my busy schedule might have distracted me from mindfully choosing my reads.

Diversify 2015

Inspired by the good work of the folks at We Need Diverse Books and Diversity in YA, at the end of 2014 I took a look at my stats for the year and found that only 10% of the books I read qualified. So for 2015, I specifically set my sights on reading more books by authors from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, an area where I felt I was particularly lagging. Knowing I would need to be able to measure my efforts, I set a goal to make sure that 25% of the books I read in 2015 would be by authors who were members of visible minorities.

Of the 31 books I read or listened to in Q2, 12 qualified for the challenge, working out to about 39% of my books, a slight uptick from my overall total of 35% in Q1. But since I don’t review every book I read, I realized I also needed to be paying attention to where my review energies were going. Fortunately, of the 22 books I reviewed in Q2, 10 titles qualified, working out to about 45% of my reviews, down just a tick from 46% in Q1. Even though I was busy in Q2, the stockpile I built in Q1 ensured that I had a selection of diverse books on hand to choose from, preventing me from backsliding.

Cover image for To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny HanThe stockpile of diverse books was particularly important because during the month of May, I also undertook an unrelated month-long mini-challenge, aimed at knocking off a few of the unread books that have been sitting on my shelf for a while. I forswore buying any new books for the month, and was only allowed to check out reference material (such a travel guide books) and audiobooks from the library. I read ten books from my own library, and finally got around to titles such as Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han.

Year-to-date, 22 of the 48 books I have reviewed have been by minority authors, for a total of about 46%. Of my total reads, 26 of 71 have qualified, for a total of about 37%. As I’ve been reading more books by a wider range of diverse authors, I’ve noticed the various  suggestion algorithms on the sites I use catching up with the shift. For Q1, I was mainly finding books by picking out names and author photos from dust jackets and book reviews, but now Goodreads, NoveList, and Amazon are all responding the the change in my reading. This is both helpful and discouraging since on the one hand, I am getting a technological  assist finding the types books I want, but it may also imply that the suggestions for minority authors are tied more strongly to other minority authors than to genre, style, or other more significant appeal factors. This makes increasing the visibility of these titles in other ways all the more important.

In that spirit, onward to Q3!

Challenges, Criticism, Memoir, MetaBooks, Non-Fiction

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.

Criticism, Memoir, MetaBooks, Non-Fiction

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.

You might also like:

Cover image for One for the Books by Joe QueenanOne For the Books by Joe Queenan