Between attending sessions and meetings at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting, I’m living in Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. I say “living in” because that’s how I interact with books. I live in them and they live in me—some for a few days, some for decades.
In Reading Lolita, Azar Nafisi describes the experience of reading and teaching English literature in Tehran during the Islamic revolution. As the homeland she loves is systematically thrust into a rigid Islamic society, Nafisi finds that the novels she reads and teaches become her lifeline. Because novels underscore the complexity of human beings and often shift the reader’s sympathies from one character to another, they stand in opposition to rigidity. For her, reading Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Madam Bovary, and Daisy Miller becomes an act of resistance.
In one key scene, the students in Nafisi’s classroom put The Great Gatsby on trial. A strict Muslim student accuses the novel of immorality because it depicts immoral characters without condemning their actions. The novel, he claims, seduces the reader to accept Western capitalist ideals. Nasifi and another student defend the novel, arguing instead that a novel shouldn’t be judged on the traits of its characters but rather by what happens to the reader in the process of the encounter. The novel “can be moral when it shakes us out of our stupor and makes us confront the absolutes we believe in” (129). Precisely because The Great Gatsby disturbs, it is of value.
After the trial, Nasifi reflects on just how relevant the novel has become to the situation of Iran. In both cases, lives are ruined by trying to live a dream of reliving an idealized past. And in the difficult weeks that follow, Nafisi points over and over to the parallels between novels and the experiences of herself and her women students, as they are progressively stripped of rights and freedoms.
One of the things that struck me when reading Nafisi’s account of the Gatsby trial is how many people treat the Bible as if it is on trial, believing that all they’re been asked for is an up-or-down vote about its value. Walking through the book exhibits at SBL, I’ve seen again how many “popular” books mark their territory by passing judgment on the historical accuracy of the Bible and/or how good its answers to life’s questions are. The Bible is a good /accurate book or the Bible is a bad/inaccurate book. Read this book to help you decide!
I don’t read the Bible that way. Not anymore. I am willing to name what’s wrong with the Bible, but that doesn’t stop me from living in it. I don’t like the Akedah, the account in Gen 22 of Isaac’s near-death experience at the hand of his father. But it is a story that I live in and that lives in me. It foregrounds a question that shapes much of my life: what/who will I sacrifice? Myself? My calling? Those I love? Is it possible to live without doing any of those things? How I vote on the Akedah isn’t the question. How it gets me thinking about the truths of my existence and the assumptions of the society that I live in are.
I hope to finish Reading Lolita by the time I return home from this meeting. I wonder how long after that it will linger in my imagination.