The Power—and Necessity—of Reading Dangerously
Azar Nafisi on Engaging with Opposition
I left Iran for the first time at the age of thirteen to continue my education in England, and, ever since, books and stories have been my talismans, my portable home, the only home I could rely on, the only home I knew would never betray me, the only home I could never be forced to leave. Reading and writing have protected me through the worst moments of my life, through loneliness, terror, doubt, and anxiety. And they have also given me new eyes with which to see both my homeland and my adopted country.
In Iran, like all totalitarian states, the regime pays too much attention to poets and writers, harassing, jailing, and even killing them. The problem in America is that too little attention is paid to them. They are silenced not by torture and jail but by indifference and negligence. I am reminded of James Baldwin’s claim that “Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.” In the United States, it is mainly we, the people, who are the problem; we who take the existence of challenging literature for granted, or see reading as solely a comfort, seeking out only texts that confirm our presuppositions and prejudices. Perhaps for us, the very idea of change is dangerous, and what we avoid is reading dangerously.
Authors are not infallible. Each great writer is the child of her or his age, certainly. But the miraculous aspect of great books is their ability to both reflect and transcend the prejudices of the author as well as their time and place. It is this quality that allows a young woman in twentieth-century Iran to read a Greek man named Aeschylus, who lived thousands of years ago, and to empathize with him. Reading does not necessarily lead to direct political action, but it fosters a mindset that questions and doubts; that is not content with the establishment or the established. Fiction arouses our curiosity, and it is this curiosity, this restlessness, this desire to know that makes both writing and reading so dangerous.
Over the years, I have been saying how the structure of great fiction is based on multivocality, on a democracy of different perspectives where even the villain has a voice, while bad fiction reduces all voices to one voice, that of the writer, who, like a dictator, stifles all the characters in order to impose his message and agenda. Great works of literature—works that are truly dangerous—question and expose that dictatorial impulse, both on the page and in the public space.
We are living in a post-Trump era, but Trump will be with us for a long time; if not physically, then figuratively. We will experience the aftershocks of the Trump presidency in the years to come. The establishment of some form of normalcy does not mean that these deep undercurrents of hatred have gone away and democracy is safe. This post-Trump era is overwhelmed by violence both in rhetoric and reality, communicating not through inclusion but elimination. This era is also dominated by lies. Unlike fiction that seeks the truth, lies are based on illusions that are mistaken for reality. But we also live in a time of hope and transition, where there is a real opportunity for change, for genuine equality, for democracy. It all depends on what we choose and how we choose to implement it.
How do we confront the current crisis? How do we genuinely change? Trump has reminded us that what we need to fight and change are not merely political positions or policies, but attitudes, a way of looking at and acting in the world. It is ironic that in opposing Trump, or a regime like the Islamic Republic, in trying not to be like them, we discover our own values as well as our own flaws and our negligence in defense of those values. For surely we too must share the blame—through passivity or inadvertent complicity—in creating the problems that face us today.
We in this country have lost the art of engaging with the opposition. This is where reading dangerously comes in: it teaches us how to deal with the enemy. We need to know not just how to deal with friends and allies, but with adversaries and enemies as well. Knowing your enemy involves discovering yourself. Democracy depends upon engagement with our adversaries and opponents. It depends upon us being made to think, and rethink, assess and reassess our own positions, face both the enemies outside of us and the ones within. I like what Jonathan Chait says in a 2021 piece in New York Magazine about the Republican Party demoting Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney for having the “audacity” to not tow the party line regarding Trump’s actions before and during US Capitol riots of January 6, 2021: “You make peace with your enemies, not your friends.”
I turn to fiction because responding to these questions, and dealing with our adversaries, first and foremost requires understanding, and for that we need the imaginative power that fiction cultivates. In fiction, as in real life, plot moves forward and character is developed through opposition and conflict. Personal, political, or literary opposition can always find a form. And I am interested here to explore the different forms and shapes both literary and actual opposition take that can lead to a change in perspective. Because change is difficult to effect, and differences often seem insurmountable, and literature teaches us how we are compelled to act in certain ways, leading us to the question “How do we change the world?” followed by “How do we change ourselves?”
Right now books are in danger. One can go a step further and say that imagination and ideas are in danger, and whenever they are threatened, we know that our reality is similarly in danger. Remember the saying “First they burn books, then they kill people”? This is a good time to remember what Toni Morrison once said: “. . . art takes us and makes us take a journey beyond price, beyond cost, into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be.”
Adapted from Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times © 2022 by Azar Nafisi. Reproduced by permission of Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved