I love a good book. I’d heard of Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. In fact, it was an Oprah Book Club selection and some people said it changed their life. “I have to have that book,” I told myself. And, lucky me, I was able to pick one up at a used bookstore for $7. When I returned home, after retrieving Reading Group Discussion Questions for Reading Lolita in Tehran off the internet, I found a nice quiet spot to sit down with my new book.
After reading over the questions briefly, I decided to start with question #7: “During the Gatsby trial Zarrin charges Mr. Nyazi with the inability to ‘distinguish fiction from reality’ (page 128). How does Mr. Nyazi’s conflation of the fictional and the real relate to the theme of the blind censor?”
“Whoa,” I thought to myself, “Who in the world is Zarrin or Mr. Nyazi?” “’Gatsby’ probably refers to “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but how? This is a book about reading famous books; I know that much.”
After turning to page 128 (chapter 18 by the way), I learn that Zarrin is a woman. “Maybe she’s in Tehran like the title says.” Page 128 reads like a mock trial of some kind, but it‘s incomplete. The last line of the page reads, “He wrote cheap stories for money …”
Looking back over the questions, I decide that I might have jumped ahead of myself. I go back up to Question #2, “Yassi adores playing with words, particularly with Nabokov’s fanciful linguistic creation ‘upsilamba’ (page 18). What does the word ‘upsilamba’ mean to you?”
“What does ’Upsilamba’ mean to me?! Are you serious?!” Beginning to get a little frustrated, I turn to page 18 (chapter 5). Reading page 18 (twice) doesn’t help. “’Upsilamba’ means nothing to me.
I sit back in my chair with a sign. Maybe Oprah was wrong. I can’t make sense of this book.
What a strange way to read a book, you’re thinking. You got it all wrong Chris; don’t you know how to read a book?
“Okay. I’ll give it one more try.” Picking up the book again – this time looking for a little personal relevance – I turn to page 34, where there’s a dried leaf being used as a bookmark (“Must be important,” I think to myself.) I read a paragraph.
“Many wished to be a part of his hidden kingdom, but he picked only a few who passed his secret test. He made all the bids, accepting and rejecting them for reasons of his own. In return for his help, he asked friends never to acknowledge or mention his name publicly. There were many whom he had cut from his life because they had gone against this demand. I remember one of his oft-repeated sentences: ‘I want to be forgotten; I am not a member of this club.’”
Pause. “Okay, what does this mean to me? Well, first of all, he doesn’t sound very friendly, whoever he is. I want to be a better friend … Maybe I should join the club … I could use the exercise.”
“That’s a little better,” I thought, “But what does it have to do with Tehran or Lolita or me, for that matter?”
A week later, I sold the book back to the same used bookstore for $3. I walked home very disappointed in Oprah.
I have to admit, that's no way to read a book. But the tragedy is – my story reflects just a couple of the inadequate approaches we have to reading the Bible.