I’ve just finished Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. The book is an insider’s view of the Iranian revolution, events which happened during my first few years back in the States, when–joy, joy, I could finally vote!
By far the most striking parts of her book are the places which describe Azar and her students and their thirst for reading material. During the revolution and its aftermath, English books became increasingly rare and a once thriving intellectual environment at the University of Tehran and the city’s bookstores and cafes were censured or shut down completely. Nafisi and her students came to class clutching miss-matched or even photocopied pages of The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice. The long nights punctuated by Iraqi bombs found Azar sitting outside her children’s room reading her precious books–from Agatha Christie to Henry James.
Though I’ve worried through many nights, aided by my own collection of friendly books, I’ve never had to worry about bombs dropping. I have, however, experienced the scarcity of books, the delight at seeing a new English title. I’ve even suffered from the condition of “book deficiency disease,” when a book I would ordinarily never choose becomes a delight due to the lack of competition. This is equivalent to taking your brother to prom or to watching a poorly-made movie when nothing else is on. . . only more so–because books are always “more so.”
I remember devouring every imaginative-looking book from the small school library in Cuiaba, Brasil , where I spent four years of my youth. There were titles like, Love Finds a Way, and The Mystery of Mar Saba, and a series of adventure stories featuring Jennings who went to British boarding school, who was like Harry Potter without the magic but twice the mischievousness. Then I began borrowing books from Uncle Menno and Aunt Barb who had an extensive collection. There were old- fashioned titles like “Patsy and Her Dog from the North” as well as newer selections, “Man in Black”–the autobiography of Johnny Cash. About the time Uncle Menno’s library was winding down in terms of exciting titles, someone (I don’t remember who) retired, left for the states and we inherited their crate of books which had been stored in a shed, smelled musty and had succumbed to the omnipresent termites. Whoever the woman of the family had been she favored modern gothic novels featuring heroins with thin hands and fluffy gowns running from dreadfully over-powering castles. These weren’t exactly books I would have chosen from a large library or bookstore, but I devoured them nevertheless. I remember reading of white-clad mysterious women and their aristocratic, though somewhat nefarious love interests all while I sat in the back porch hammock, shooing an occasional chicken who had wandered thence. The imaginary fragrance of castle lawns merged with the smells of the musty book, the dusty day, and the towels souring on the wash line overhead.
I still cannot visit an old used bookstore or library, open a decaying tome, without remembering the contrasting sensory experience of reading Gothic Romances in the Brazilian interior.