The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once told Dartmouth’s graduating class about the importance of boredom, a condition, he said, that no liberal arts college could prepare them for.
Iranian-born writer and essayist Azar Nafisi had something else in mind for this year’s CMC commencement address that was similarly unappealing: discomfort.
Not only, she says, is discomfort something to learn how to live through, it’s a state from which good things often emerge.
“College is not a place to be comfortable,” she says from her home in Washington, D.C. “But to be challenged and quite uncomfortable at times.”
Nafisi is best known for describing the way American literature connects to lives outside America: Her most famous work is Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, from 2003. Reading U.S. novels during her years in Iran and Europe—as a kid she fell for L. Frank Baum’s original Wizard of Oz—gave her a sense of life on the outside even before she moved here, fleeing repression, in 1997.
“One of the things that interested me,” she says, “was that great American fiction was so anxious.”
That nervous energy drove the heroes of her favorite novels, books by Mark Twain, James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, and others. The protagonists often struggled against something else: “a complacency that came from either affluence or the search for affluence.”
By contrast, “Everything that is great about America came from a lot of work and pain: The American Revolution, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement involved not just giving up comfort but people giving up their lives.”
Reading Lolita was a critical smash and a national bestseller. Her latest book, last fall’s The Republic of the Imagination, also drew raves: "No one writes better or more stirringly about the way books shape a reader’s identity,” Salon’s Laura Miller wrote, “and about the way that talking books with good friends becomes integral to how we understand the books, our friends, and ourselves.”
The Iranian students whose stories make up the backbone of Reading Lolita—with whom Nafisi got together in more-or-less secret to discuss novels by Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen—were really taking their lives in their hands to read and talk about literature.
Given the meaning that the humanities have for people in poor nations and repressive regimes, it troubles her when she sees the liberal arts disregarded in affluent societies besotted by money, technology, and shallow entertainment.
Nafisi’s own commitment to Western literature was part of what got her in repeated trouble with the reigning theocrats, but “it only made me love the republic of the imagination more zealously.” This idea was one of the themes in her keynote remarks at this year’s 68th Commencement.
“It would be disastrous if you felt you had gotten to the end of your education when you graduate,” she says. “A great college should nurture your sense of curiosity—and the joy of knowledge.”
Timberg is a former lead arts and culture reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the author of “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class” (Yale University Press).