It's hard not to love a writer who pens an ode to the commonwealth of our imaginations.

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It's hard not to love a writer who pens an ode to the commonwealth of our imaginations.

Azar Nafisi, the Iranian-American professor who stole our hearts with the seditious Reading Lolita in Iran, is back to seduce her readers with The Republic of Imagination. And in this extended essay/memoir she contends it will be literature -- novels -- that will preserve what is cherished most in liberal democracies.

Nafisi, a professor of English literature, asserts that the novel is a most democratic form of free expression, where ideas are given the space to breathe, present their merits and weaknesses on the backs of ordinary, complex people. Readers are pried out of simplistic reductions of right and wrong, good and evil and the comfort of their prejudices.

The Republic of Imagination examines the freedoms at the core of human dignity, starting with the basic instinct to be free and to express without inhibition. Naturally, in choosing now to speak to her adopted country of the United States of that nation's literary treasures, she starts with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mark Twain has a special place in Nafisi's examination of the intuitive need to be free, unshackled by social conventions and class/racial/religious divisions.

Having run, herself, from the oppression of a tyrannical state, where the exchange of ideas is the most threatening form of protest, Nafisi brings insight and poignant perspective on the value of expression, debate and the simple act of wonder. And she says, in reflecting on the tragedies of her exiled cousin, that she and Farah had a particular understanding of and affinity for Huck and Jim's reflex to run, to hide.

It is through them and other American beloved literary characters -- Carson McCullers' Mick (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) and Sinclair Lewis's ultra-repressed Babbitt -- that she examines the fraud of the American dream, its myth as a nation born of ambition, equality and fierce individualism.

America, she finds, has bastardized its dream: the poor are parasites, the wealthy are job-creators and as Congress "protects" the country's future, teachers and firefighters are expected to make sacrifices. The country that reviles the uniformity of communism has become a nation of conformists.

This is no paean to some of the country's leading writers -- it is a forewarning of what is at risk as Americans turn from reading. How can a nation talk to itself, reflect and express with any honesty when it is distracted by the machine-gun clatterstream of 140 characters or the meaningless minutiae of Kardashian details?

This is just not an American affliction; Nafisi's message is a tocsin to democratic societies, generally.

Her lengthy examination of Huck Finn, as with Reading Lolita, is engrossing. The sections on The Heart and Babbitt, less so. But she is an elegant writer and a welcome philosopher. There's no putting Republic down.

For lovers of books, it is beguiling. Just as it is that a scholar from the country that gave the world the Ruba'iyyatt and that spawned the idea of One Thousand and One Nights would choose fictional America as the exemplar of the novel's gift to humanity.

 

Catherine Mitchell is a Free Press editorial writer.