THE PARADOX OF THE BOOK

Not Reading An Iota in America

By Randy Salzman
Sunday, February 17, 2008

CHARLOTTESVILLE

Twenty-nine adults, young and old, black and white, sit aimlessly in the juvenile court waiting room, staring at nothing. Two infants sleep in their parent's laps; two toddlers suck their thumbs.

I put down my book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," and walk across to the courtroom and look in. At the front, the harried judge deals with at least one lawyer, a social worker or two, a pair of distraught parents and a teenage boy determined to exhibit perfect contempt. Behind them, at least two dozen adults and a handful of teens stare either into space or into that same pool of derision. No one here has a book, or a newspaper, or a magazine, even though all of us came aware that we might wait for hours.

Returning to the waiting room, I pick up my book -- the stunning story of eight women who read and discuss Western novels in the Islamic Republic of Iran despite threats of death, dismemberment and prison so that, at least in their minds, they might see themselves as free. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife," I read one of the women sardonically paraphrasing the opening of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

Call it the paradox of the book. Where we can read, where we should read, even in a place where reading might address the exact problem being battled and where there is little else to do but read, we don't. But "over there," where the simple pleasure of understanding life through literature is denied, people are willing to suffer -- and at least one of these women is jailed, raped and beaten -- for the right to open Austen, Kafka, Nabokov, Tolstoy and Twain.

"To steal the words from Humbert, the poet/criminal of 'Lolita'," writes author Azar Nafisi, "I need you the reader, to imagine us, for we won't really exist if you don't. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us in the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading 'Lolita' in Tehran.

"And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us."

I scan the waiting room again. Two women to my left are talking, but everyone else appears to have no thoughts, no ideas, no desires. They are just there. One young couple, the woman holding a sleeping infant, smile at each other, but every other adult simply stares straight ahead.

"Are you a social worker?" I ask a tall blond woman in a business suit with file folders in her lap. She jerks away from her personal thoughts and nods. "Why don't they provide books here?" I ask. "Juvenile fiction, picture books, anything?"

"That's an idea," she says, showing traces of interest. "It might help."

"Can you handle the permission issue?" I continue. "I think I could get books donated."


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