Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi

The Republic of Imagination
Azar Nafisi
Published 2014

After reading Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I Have Been Silent About, I became a fan of both books and the author, an Iranian immigrant to America who appreciates liberty (and loves books). 

Azar Nafisi on freedom, individualism, literature, and women's rights in the West:

Definitely, I wanted to read her next book, The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books, which could be described as her search for what it means to become an American citizen. Here is a portion of what the back cover says:
The best novels, Azar reminds us, can transport us across time and space, picking us up and plunking us down in a radically unfamiliar world. But they are not just a means of escape. Through books, we learn to step into other people's shoes and to imagine ourselves confronting difficult choices. Azar challenges us to find in fiction the inspiration and the courage - to lead a more meaningful life.
It truly appealed to me.

Unfortunately, the book did not live up to my bookish expectations, and Nafisi and I had a lot of political disagreements. Since following her on social media, I know she holds conflicting ideas about America, freedom, and politics that I do not understand, coming from a woman who experienced a loss of freedoms, privacy, individualism, and independence. Why does she support political and social policies in America that threaten those very ideals? 

Anyway, I read on. 

The book is divided into three parts, about three novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I would have liked very much to emphasize the premise of each part; unfortunately, all I found was a collection of ideas that do not flow together. Instead, I did my best to present what I believe to be her arguments, without much personal opinion from me about how I disagree. It is too complicated.


For example, in her quest to find what it means to be an American, she mocked the idea of INDIVIDUALISM, which she referred to as a "myth" and anyone who defended it as "noxious."

She tied it into Huck's idea of individualism, not based on greed, hypocritical Christianity, or society's system of right and wrong. It is his own moral compass -- "his inner authority." Nafisi declared: "This is the kind of individualism that shapes my idea of America...choices to be true to, that inner self, the rebellious heart that beats to its own rhythm." 

Her point was that to be an American, one should follow his own moral compass, reject conformity, and question society or authority's idea of morality. 


The next American nuisance Nafisi tackled was the love of money, materialism, and mobility, as if those were only unique to Americans. 
Babbitt does not merely condemn this consumerism; it lays open the paradox at the heart of American society: the urge (perhaps "addiction" is a better word) for novelty, for movement, for constant change that creates "Pep" and motivates "invention:" while at the same time being an impediment to imagination and reflection.
For some reason, she used this chapter to attack Common Core, our federal government's special educational formula to produce useful and successful citizens. I cannot say I disagree with her, but more so because the federal government should not be in the business of education. She also lamented the loss of liberal arts in public education, in order to spend more time "teaching to the test."

She used this section to complain about the Republican Party cuts to Obama's funding for education of minorities and the poor (which is what I thought was the purpose of public school) and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts. All this shows is that Nafisi misunderstands the function and purpose of a federal government under a constitutional republic. 

By the end of chapter 8 of "Babbitt," I think she was zeroing in on IMAGINATION. She stated,
What every reader has in common with Babbitt is that...we are faced with choices. Freedom of choice lies at the heart of every...society. Against the onslaught of consumerism...our only weapon is to exercise our right to choose. And to make the right choices, we need to be able to think, to reflect, to pause, to imagine...
She declared that few American novels have happy endings, and possibly that is because the "Declaration of Independence provides its citizens not with the right to happiness but the right to its pursuit." Americans are spending so much of their time continuously in pursuit of something. And they are not happy. (I added that last part.)

To sum it up, she demonstrated that Americans are becoming mind-numb in their pursuit of wealth, comfort, and personal freedom, unable to make better choices, to be educated, to think, and to serve others. They have lost their imaginations, in the process.


This final part dealt with settings, which focused on isolation and moral loneliness. In the story The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, all of the characters suffer from a form of LONELINESS. 

Nafisi makes several arguments: people are alone even when they are together, and people are so isolated from the world that they are not aware of their surroundings. In the novel, the characters are blinded by their self-obsessions, distracted, and unable to "express themselves or communicate with others." People really want to belong and connect to others, but they forgot how.

The author uses this part to discuss how violence is a "contribution of American fiction...the isolation of individuals, leading to a sort of emotional and social autism." Then she asked, 
Is this the unforeseeable flip side of the American dream? Is this what happens if you are allowed to imagine a future so remote from your existence when...your dream cannot be realized?
In the end, Nafisi echoed McCullers that "America has been caught in a protracted adolescence, searching for an identity and wanting desperately to belong." She argued that " not a positive attribute." 
What if that prized individualism, the one that was worth risking life and property to secure, that found its apotheosis in a kind of universal empathy, is being transformed into a narcissistic self-indulgence or greedy selfishness? 
And that is how she ended the book. I did not read the epilogue, and I almost did not finish what I started; however, I admit I found the two novels I have not read, Babbitt and Heart is a Lonely Hunter, quite intriguing. So if I got anything out of the book, I can add two new titles to my TBR. 


In final words, Nafisi continued to refer to America as a democracy. America is NOT a democracy. Democracies permit at least 51% of all the people to demand what they want at the expense of the individual or minority. (Ironically, the author titled her book The REPUBLIC of Imagination for a reason.)

Let's say America is a democracy: then we would not have legalized gay marriage. 

In my very own liberal state of California, the voters overwhelmingly, in 2008, supported the protection of marriage between a man and a woman. The minority of gay marriage activists went to the court to appeal the election, and the court overturned it. That is because America is a constitutional republic, and we are under the law. The law permitted the minority to use the courts to get what they wanted. It is the popular way for the minority to get what it wants these days, but under a true democracy, they would have never won because the majority of the voters were against homosexual unions and wanted to protect and preserve traditional marriage only.

Visiting Sacramento

When I visited my state capitol earlier this year, I was surprised to see how much minority representation there was, which would be us little peon Republicans, or conservatives. The minority party still has opportunity to sit on committees, and the majority must meet higher percentages of support to pass bills, meaning they cannot usually pass most bills without some support of the minority. 

Even when voting for President of the United States, we vote for electors in our state, who then vote for the presidential candidate. But we really add up the electors of each state, and the winner is the one who reaches 270. Twice in my lifetime, the candidate who won the most electors did not win the majority individual vote.

California homeschoolers line up to appeal to lawmakers, 
in opposition to a proposed bill

Americans vote for representatives who in turn make our laws. We can appeal to our representatives to vote how we like, but he or she may not. This year, we appealed to a state committee to oppose a bill that would have affected homeschoolers, in California, and almost 2000 people showed up to voice their opposition. The committee, in turn, did not even vote on the proposed bill, and instead let it die. However, we understand that legislators are waiting for another opportunity to introduce the bill again, or sneak it in somewhere. I guess if it does happen to become law, we always have the courts to appeal, thanks to our Constitutional Republic. 


I do not know how to recommend this book. (Maybe I am conflicted because I received the typical negative view of Americans, as if we are all carbon copies of each other. Instead, she could have used different books to demonstrate the positive of America, if she sees any at all. It also could have been written more cohesively; I struggled to understand a concrete idea, but I got whiplash. Also her unnecessarily patronizing jabs at Republicans, Fox News, and Mitt Romney, which I think had nothing to do with her book, were tiresome and made me see how unenlightened she is to the duplicity all politics. The whole book had a condescending experience.)  

Aside from my opinion, I suppose if you are a fan of Huck Finn, Babbitt, or Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and you are a Democrat, but NOT a public school teacher, you may find this book acceptably appealing. 


  1. Your final paragraph cracked me up :-) Yeah, not a book I'll take the time to read.

  2. I was blown away by Reading Lolita in Teheran. Unfortunately this book does not sound like it would affect me in the same way. Her book choices are good, but her interpretations as described in your commentary leave something to be desired. Huckleberry Finn is much more than a exemplar of Emersonian individualism. Regarding The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, it is a book that I would recommend to all!

    1. Me, too. I LOVED Reading Lolita in Tehran, as well as her other biography, Things I've Been Silent About. I rather enjoy her story telling, which I did not discuss here. She weaves her personal story into the first book, Huckleberry Finn. I definitely was interested by her descriptions of the book plots, and I want to read both Babbit and Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

      I guess it is best to review this book as her own personal experience. That is all it really is. Unfortunately, I found her choices to be condescending, focusing on tragic American literature to demonstrate what is not right with people, who just so happen to also be Americans. There is great American literature that one could use to reveal what is right with Americans, and what we need more of, like Little Women, for example.

  3. Hi Ruth. It's funny but the reason I did not like Reading Lolita in Tehran is for the same reasons you don't like this book. I found her to be arrogant and blind. It seems to be typical of some people from other countries who come to live in our country. They wear you out telling you how superior their own economic and political system is while they enjoy the freedoms and opportunities here in our country. It's weird.

    I think that she knows what she must say to get her books published.

    1. I can see that about her now; she doesn't understand American liberty and freedom and independence, or constitutional republics, as so many Americans don't understand about their own country either.

      I also think that Twain was a little arrogant, and I did not totally accept her idea that this is what Twain was trying to say about Americans, other than Christians are hypocrites. But I especially do not agree with the whole "follow your own moral compass," b/c have you seen today's moral compass? People have been encouraged to question authority from the beginning of civilization, and look where it has gotten us. If people were well grounded in God's righteousness, then their moral compass would be right.