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Azar Nafisi views American society through its literature in ‘Republic of Imagination’

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: a reexamination of three classics of American literature.

    Jeffrey Brown has that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In a totalitarian system, books can be dangerous, writers suppressed, jailed, killed. What about in a democracy, specifically in our own?

    What is the role of literature in telling us who we are, and what place should we make for it?

    The new book “The Republic of Imagination,” mixes memoir with literary crimp and policy critique.

    To explore such questions, its author is Azar Nafisi, who previously addressed them in the bestseller “Reading Lolita in Tehran.”

    And welcome, Azar.

  • AZAR NAFISI, Author, “The Republic of Imagination”:

    Thank you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So there in Tehran, in those years, literature was dangerous. Here, very different, right?

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    The way I feel is that books are dangerous in their own way in every society.

    But the way we treat them here, the way we destroy them here is not through guns or bullets or jail. We just become indifferent toward them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Indifferent?

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    Yes.

    Indifference is one of the most fatal weapons you can use, because you don’t see, you don’t hear, you don’t touch. Ray Bradbury says that you don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture, only get people not to read them. They are almost sort of like flowers. They just wither and die if there are no readers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And you see that happening in our society?

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    And I see that happening in our society.

    And I noticed it when I returned to America in 1997. I noticed it in the way they were being taught at universities. A lot of times, in many English classes, not all by any means, they were taught as handmaidens to something political or ideological.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, in the book, you use several classics of American literature.

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And just to pick one, the middle one, which is Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt,” right, because you use that as a way to look at what has happened to today.

    Now, tell us, remind us first about “Babbitt,” why you that was important to you.

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    “Babbitt” is such a wonderful book in so many ways, but the essence of “Babbitt” is the sort of Rotarian or the corporate man, the man in the middle, who is not really, really the top, but with a business mind.

    And what “Babbitt” represents is, more than anything else, standardization of thought. His home, the way he speaks, all of them are according to a rule. But it is that standardization of thought, and in “Babbitt,” it’s almost — it will soon be 100 years since that book was written.

    The standard for success, like now, is money. And even the way he speaks, you know, the way we talk about job creators?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right, job creators. But you take it further. So, you look in our schools. You look at the emphasis on outcomes, on testing, on the Common Core. And you see something that is too much focused on utility, on jobs, on outcomes?

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    Yes. Yes.

    And, in “Babbitt,” his son tells him, I don’t know why we have to read this Shakespeare and them. And Babbitt talks about how he likes these — they didn’t have television then, but these sort of classes whereby professor so and so teaches you how to read.

    And he said, read Shakespeare and them because you have to pass. And that’s his philosophy.

    And I think that’s what Common Core, is that it’s a manifestation of an attitude. It is not, you did this wrong here or there. It is the fact that you’re saying, our children should go to school and later to college, not because they’re passionate about it, not they want some meaning or fulfillment in life. They should go to college because they want to be career-ready — right out of “Babbitt.”

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But what’s being lost in that attitude?

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    And what’s being lost in that attitude is what is being lost in a democracy, because, in a democracy principle, both the individual and society have responsibilities.

    And the society’s responsibility is to provide the citizens with opportunity to fulfill themselves as human beings. When you take fulfillment, meaning, passion out of education, imagination, you are taking it not just out of humanities. You’re taking it out of science.

    Science itself is all about the passion to discover, you know? And are we teaching — why should our children want to give back if all they go to school is based on greed and making more money? Why should they even want to serve their country or be concerned about what happens in this country, when we all — all we teach them this is a dog-eat-dog world and each for his own?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, so what do you want to see happen? What would you propose to regain this sense of, as you put it, the republic of imagination?

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    Well, the first thing is, I think we need a national conversation very seriously about defining ourselves.

    You know, America, like the rest of the world, is in a crisis. And I feel that this crisis is not just economic or political. It’s a crisis of vision.

    So, this time of rapid change, both in economy, in technology and all sorts of other things, we need a national discussion about, what kind of an America do we want to be? And then the first thing that you go through is education, is humanities, because I believe that the basis of this country, as George Washington also believed, is enlightenment, the idea of enlightenment. And you forget that, what are you left with?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. The new book is “The Republic of Imagination.”

    Azar Nafisi, thank you so much.

  • AZAR NAFISI:

    Thank you very much, Jeffrey.

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