I remember college English professors who, perhaps blindsided by fashionable trends in scholarship, deplored—or worse, ignored—modern Western novelists such as Vladimir Nabokov or Henry James (invoking the damning labels "misogynist" and "elitist"). And so I was at least intrigued when I came across Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. What use would a company of young Iranian women living in an oppressive fundamentalist state have for Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel detailing the ensnarement and rape of a 12-year-old girl by the quixotic and obsessed H. Humbert?
Nafisi does not disappoint. With lucidity and candor, she tells of a most unusual book club—an underground literature class composed of seven of her brightest female students who meet weekly for two years in Nafisi’s living room in Tehran. Beneath the shadow of a disapproving university, a blind censor, and invasive Islamic morality squads, the women read Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James, and Nabokov as if their very lives depended on it. They read Western novels precisely because they were considered dangerous by the authorities, but more important, they provided a new and foreign idiom for self-illumination.