Why We Read

Azar Nafisi—

Reading is like Alice running after that white rabbit, because she is curious; she wants to know more about a talking rabbit. She is prepared to take the risk and jump down that hole without knowing what she will find at the bottom of the well. This is why we read: because of our passion for the unknown, the unexpected, the other, and, yes, at times, the uncomfortable. Alice finds many amazing things in Wonderland, but she is also disturbed because they are strange and don’t fit her expectations.

As Vladimir Nabokov said: “curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” That insubordination is about a complacent and conformist world, but also the conformist and complacent within each one of us. And, because Alice allows herself to be surprised, to be shocked, and because she tried to find a way to communicate with and understand even those creatures she doesn’t agree with or approve of, she is allowed to discover the wonders of Wonderland and, as a result, she leaves it a wiser, more interesting Alice.

When we enter the world of academia, the world of books, we enter that Wonderland. We are not there to feel comfortable, to read and debate what we already know, what we already agree with. We need to be challenged intellectually; we need to get to know our friends and foes alike, even those we are sure are despicable and harmful, for, if nothing else, the simple reason that, in order to defeat our enemies, we must understand them; in order to join forces with our allies, we must comprehend them.

Great books, books that reveal to us the truth, such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, to name a few, have been banned by the right and the left. These books, if they depict a word or an act that is heinous, it is not in approval of that word or act; rather, it is to reveal the truth, to show us reality as it is, to make us uncomfortable with things the way they are–that is how we fight rape, racism, and other realities, by going deep into them, understanding them, and finding them intolerable. This is what Huckleberry Finn does by using the n-word within the book’s context. That word within that book represents all that is violent, reprehensible, and intolerable about slavery. The frightening thing is that not just the obvious villains, the cruel slave owners, but ordinary, seemingly decent individuals are capable of the worst violence.

Reading should, first and foremost, be done for the pure and sensual joy of reading. Reading should place us within all sorts of experiences; make us think independently; and have an open, free mind. Reading must give us the courage to face the world and ourselves; to jump in that hole; and, who knows what wonders lay in, waiting for us.

Perhaps the best defense of why we need to save books, to cherish them, and to read them comes from the fictional characters themselves, best expressed by a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” I remember how much reading a book meant in Iran. People living there and under other oppressive, totalitarian regimes give up a lot in order to read books, banned books. I remember that intensity, that involvement, that appreciation. It saddens me that in America and other countries where we’re at liberty to read, we don’t take that liberty.

Azar Nafisi has taught at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, Allameh Tabatabi, and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. She is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, as well as Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter and The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books and her latest book is That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile.

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