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Creating Windows of Imagination: The Search for America's Zeitgeist and Character via its Literature Creating Windows of Imagination: The Search for America's Zeitgeist and Character via its Literature
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-11-04 11:49:59
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An Essay-Review on The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books,  by Azar Nafisi (2014)

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It has been said that to know the culture and indeed, the very soul of a people, one has to read its literature and not in translation but in its original language. That is to say, language is linked to life and culture. Such is the basic premise of Azar Nafisi’s latest book titled The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. It is the third published book from Azar Nafisi. Her other two very successful books were Reading Lolita in Theran (a best seller), and Things I’ve Been Silent About. Indeed, this is a book about books, as was the case for the first of her books. The books she examines are a means to talk about other books, about freedom and life in general. It is a book which speaks about nuances and facets of other famous books.

 

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Azar Nafisi (1955-   ) Resides in the US since 1997 and is a US citizen since 2008

 

 

 

Nafisi, who is now a university professor of English in the US, uses three classic American stories to illustrate the American way of life through reading. The idea for the book came to her when a young man, also from Iran, approached her and expressed his disdain for Americans and their lack of understanding the importance of books. She set out to prove him wrong. Using Huckleberry Finn, Babbit and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Azar demonstrates the uniquely American perspective on reading. She warns of the dangers of ignoring the rights and freedoms we have and despairs over the closure of libraries and bookstores.  

 

As an eloquent writer Nafisi possesses the rare ability of providing her readers with new insights into works of literature and the reading process; that is to say, the ability to transform novels that one is already familiar with, into new and interesting texts leaving the reader with a new appreciation. As the title suggests, the reader is invited to join a place which is entirely a reader's own creation, allowing one to escape everyday life into a magic land wherein anything is possible. To explore the effects and benefits of literary escapism, she chose three classic American novels: Huckleberry Finn, Babbit, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in addition to other works of American literature. She also interweaves anecdotes from her personal life and a melancholy view of consumerism in modern American life.

 

Those three books represent for Nafasi the America's zeitgeist. Part One is about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. She alternates her analysis of the book and how it reflects American spirit and sense of freedom is counterbalanced by the story of her old friend who was a radical in post revolution Iran and recently died after a long battle with cancer. This is the strongest and most moving part of the book on many levels. Part two considers Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, consumerism, and the Common Core--strange, but compatible bedfellows in Nafisi's hands. Part Three's novel is Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and deals with Southern fiction, how the landscape influences Southern writers, and the idea of isolation in American culture.

 

Indeed, this is a book to be highly recommend to anyone looking for insight into classic works of American fiction, or Americans seeking another perspective on aspects of their own country and culture. It is not uncommon that at times it is the naturalized citizens who adopt America as their country that are able to convey the very essence of the culture of the country, simply because they have another culture that they know just as thoroughly and to which they can confront it. Knowing another culture always helps one to appraise another and in fact makes one appreciate the host country better. The book, in fact, presents itself as an exploration of the American character through its literature, via a personal exploration. At its core, the book is about what it means for an immigrant to become and be an American, as discussed through her relation to books. Undoubtedly books are important. Without them, we remain small, inside ourselves, without a deeper way of connecting to the human experience, and life.

 

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The book is split into three parts, plus an introduction, in which Nafisi addresses why she wanted to write about these books and some of the struggles she encountered while crafting the text. Each book is tied up in memories of people who are now gone from her life, and were connected to the book in her mind because of their discussions of the books as much as by their relationships to the themes of the books. That anecdote resonates powerfully with me as a grandchild of an Italian Immigrant who came to America in 1902, and a father born in New York who lived most of his middle age life in Italy.

 

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Nafisi's use of anecdotes as parallels and contradictions for Huckleberry Finn and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is effective and a smart narrative choice. Comparing Huck Finn's escape from home and subsequent discovery of self to Nafisi's childhood friend Farah's search for home and discovery of self brings new light to Huck's struggle and character while also exploring how difficult it can be for a flesh-and-blood person to achieve the American Dream. Carson McCullers' characters Mick Kelly, John Singer, and Jake Blount are all deeply alone and seeking understanding from others, much as Nafisi's college friend Mike desperately wanted validation for his theories and fears.

 

In the middle section, "Babbitt," Nafisi excels at revealing Sinclair Lewis' wit and prescience regarding American consumerism and loss of imaginative self.

 

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In The Republic of Imagination Nafisi has created a window of imagination. It reads as part memoir, but mainly as an academic discussion, on the ideas which define this place inside our heads in which reading fiction helps us to grow. Nafisi’s Republic is a place of imagination where we can create independent thoughts, where we learn to have empathy from reading, and where reading fiction helps to cultivate inner thought, thus making us better citizens of the world.

 

 

 

 

 


    
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Emanuel Paparella2014-11-04 15:10:28
A footnote: many of the comments above can also be applied to the latest themes of our Ovi Symposium wherein we are attempting to construct a Vichian bridge between philosophy and literature, the brain and the heart, the rational and the imaginative.


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