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Why We Need To Read Dangerously

Written by Azar Nafisi


“First they burn books, then they kill people!”

That line often came to mind when I was living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, every time the regime closed a bookstore or a publishing house, every time it censored, banned, jailed or even killed authors. It never occurred to me that one day I would repeat the same sentiment in a democracy, in my new home, the United States of America.

I’m aware that the United States is not Iran. It’s government is not an Islamist regime, and it is not a totalitarian state. But totalitarian tendencies are unquestionably on the rise within segments of this country and in other democracies. We see this in the attempts to curtail women’s rights, in the rise of racism and antisemitism, and in the assault on ideas and imagination best exemplified in the banning of books.

Books are a threat to those who seek to rule through absolutism. Especially dangerous to the totalitarian mindset are great works of fiction — such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, both perennially challenged — because fiction is democratic in structure. Written well, it cannot be reduced to a preconceived message or ideology.

Good authors give their fictional characters, even villains, their own voices. (Conversely, a bad author, like a dictator, imposes his own voice upon those of his characters, stifling them.) In this way, fiction becomes a space where readers can encounter people they might otherwise never meet, create a dialogue with them, and become curious and find empathy with those who are different.

While teaching in Iran, I became vividly aware of how important this is.

Young people such as my students, when deprived of contact with the world, connected to it through its golden ambassadors: art, music, and literature.

One student, in particular, keeps reappearing in my writing and talks. Her name was Razieh. She was a small, thin girl with huge, dark eyes, and we met at the university where I was her instructor. Her favorite author was Henry James. Once, when talking about him, she said with a smile, “I think I am in love!” She adored Catherine Sloper and Daisy Miller, two very different Jamesian protagonists, both rebels in their own ways.

When I left that university, I lost touch with Razieh. Years later, another former student told me about being arrested in the 1980s, during the protests against the Cultural Revolution. While in jail, she met Razieh. They reminisced about my classes and spent many hours talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and James’s Washington Square.

“We had fun,” she said. Fun? I wondered. There was a pause in our conversation. “You know,” she finally said, “Razieh was executed.”

I didn’t know. Never when I was her teacher could I have imagined that Razieh would someday be in jail, thinking and talking about Henry James, awaiting her execution. But perhaps jail was the kind of place to evoke James. He could not save Razieh from death. But he could remind her of life’s beauties.

It is alarming to think that democracies now are actively seeking to deprive people of the reading experiences for which my students in Iran paid such a heavy price. For I can tell you: Book bans are canaries in coal mines — indicators of the direction in which a society is moving.

In recent years, we have seen how truth is replaced by lies, and how dangerous a cultivated ignorance can be, especially when it is embraced by our political leaders and our loudest media commentators, those with the largest bullhorns. Book banning is a form of silencing, and it is the next step along a continuum — one that I worry presages a further slide toward totalitarianism.

It is essential that communities unite to resist this trend. I have been grappling with how this might be accomplished, especially in places where bans are already underway. And what I keep coming back to is: We cannot be indifferent. We must read, share, and press into the hands of students any books we believe are young people’s right to encounter.  As Ray Bradbury once said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Readers, of course, have no formal organisation to promote truth, to bring about change. But they number in the billions. They range across the spectrums of profession, background, gender, race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. Collectively, their power would be immense. Every writer who is censored, jailed, or tortured and murdered; every reader who is deprived of reading the books she wants; every bookstore, library, museum, or theatre that closes; every book that is censored or removed from schools and libraries; every art, music, or literature program canceled in our schools and other institutions—these should all remind us of our responsibility.

Our responsibility to safeguard freedom.

When it comes to freedom, writers and readers are joined at the hip, for the freedom of one guarantees that of the other. Writing, of course, may have repercussions for writers, placing them in danger, but books can also be dangerous for readers. Because great works of fiction are about revealing the truth, great writers, in this sense, become witnesses to the truth; they do not, cannot, remain silent. But readers, as well, once they read the work, cannot remain silent either.

The reader and the writer share, as we all do, the right to freedom of expression. 

‘Readers are born free and they ought to remain free’, as Nabokov said.

A Mirror runs until 23 September 2023.