Good Minds Suggest—Azar Nafisi's Favorite Books About Why We Read

Posted by Goodreads on October 7, 2014

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The idea for her new book, The Republic of Imagination, came to Azar Nafisi while she was finishing her bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which related her experience teaching American literature in Iran. She writes, "I did not want my readers to believe that the books we read were meaningful simply because they were illicit and frowned upon by the moral guardians in Iran." Instead The Republic of Imagination illuminates why fiction is an essential part of the human experience, and more specifically how fiction helps us understand democracy. The book discusses the significance of three decidedly American classics: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Iranian born, Nafisi is now an American citizen based in Washington, D.C. She offers six heartfelt recommendations that show us why it is so important that we read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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"Huck is a homeless and illiterate urchin who is gifted with far more wisdom than the upright citizens of the towns he runs away from. Everything about Huck Finn is fresh and new, no matter how many times you read it. The freshness does not wear off; it has the quality of the rain-washed grass by the river that is our vagabond protagonists' true home. Huck's freshness of vision is not simply a reflection of the fact that he is a child—he is not innocent, for innocence implies lack of knowledge or ignorance, and Huck has a great deal of true knowledge, the kind that comes from the heart. He cannot fully cast off the conventional mores of his upbringing, but still rejects them to follow the dictates of his wayward heart, choosing to go to hell rather than betray his mate and fellow traveler, Jim."

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
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"If you want to know why we have a natural urge to read, you have only to consider the spell of Charlotte's Web, which has been a companion of mine since early childhood, when my father first read it to me. I have read it to my children, and I believe they will read it to theirs. It is the story of a little pig named Wilbur whose owner wants to kill him because he seems to be too weak and puny. But the owner's daughter, Fern, feeling this to be unjust, saves Wilbur's life and takes care of him. This book is so full of wisdom and empathy. When Fern asks her father if he would have killed her at birth if she were puny and weak like Wilbur, we are invited to consider the idea of justice. E.B. White mocks the stupidity of adults, who blindly believe in the illusions Charlotte weaves for them, and he [celebrates] the wisdom of children, who, like Fern, see beyond appearances, understanding the language of animals. It is a story about friendship, the need to connect, the need to love, so that we will leave a trace of ourselves long after we are gone. Charlotte dies, but E.B. White is there to remind us that 'It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.'"

The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sís
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"This miraculous book is Peter Sís's imaginative take on a mystic poem by the great 12th-century Persian Sufi poet Farīd ud-Dīn Attar. Birds of the world gather under the wise guidance of Hoopoe to seek their true leader and king, the mythic Simorgh. The quest takes them on an arduous journey that requires them to pass through seven valleys, each presenting obstacles to test their strength and resilience.

Peter Sís preserves the poem's spirit while turning it into a feast for the eyes and a work that is all his, thanks to his illustrations of immense beauty that capture the flight of the birds, their coming together and separating as in a cosmic dance. The movements, the ebb and flow of birds flying, their constant whirling, is so sensual, one can almost feel the fleeting touch of their feathers against our skin as they swish past us. We read not only to take something from a story, but also to give something back, something unique and of our own making, and Sís has done this triumphantly here."

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
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"I believe great biographies share this with fiction: They provoke our curiosity, the desire to know, while at the same time getting under their subject's skin. This is what Walter Isaacson does in his memorable biography of Einstein, presenting him as a great scientist as well as a dedicated humanist and a captivating personality. Writing about a scientific genius like Einstein must be a bit like holding the wind in your hands. Nearly impossible, and yet Isaacson manages not only to capture the story of Einstein's enormous contributions to science, but also how original and yet like the rest of us he was when it came to matters of love and friendship.

'People like you and me never grow old,' Einstein wrote to a friend later in life. 'We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.'

Einstein composed poems to express his emotions and was a great believer in the essential value and power of imagination. 'A society's competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.' So said the great scientist, and it is one lesson that is worth reminding ourselves of as we plan the future of our children's education."

The Moon Before Morning by W.S. Merwin
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"'The moment flows away out of reach / and lengthening shadows merge in the valley / and one window kindles there like a first star / what we see again will come to us in secret / and without even knowing that we are here.' These words are from the 'Long Afternoon Light' in The Moon Before Morning, the latest book of poetry by 86-year-old W.S. Merwin, former poet laureate and one of the greatest poets alive. He reminds us of what makes life not just worth living but worth preserving: the ever astonishing secrets of nature, the constant effort, through memory, to resist life's transience. These poems, like the nature they so calmly and rapturously celebrate, are the best antidote against what Saul Bellow so eloquently described as that 'atrophy of feeling' that sometimes besets us citizens in the land of plenty."

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi
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"I read this book after reading Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, a beautiful and meticulous homage to the act of reading. I love the notion that books actually conjure into being a separate place with its own history, geography, and citizens. I believe in it as much as I believe in the reality of my own country's existence. There is an element of whimsy in the act of writing and reading, the sharing of a secret cosmic joke, and this book for me also captures that whimsy.

In the preface Manguel calls this book a 'Baedeker or traveler's guide to some of the places of literature,' and he explains that his approach is 'carefully balanced between the practical and the fantastic.' As a parallel world, fiction is also fact, and he approaches his chosen texts 'as one treats the reports of an explorer or chronicler,' using only the original sources. The first word in this dictionary is 'Abaton,' which is defined as 'a town of changing locations,' one which no one has been able to reach. And that is one more reason to read: for the thrill of the journey, the perils lurking in unexpected corners, the excitement of discovery, the joy of connecting to perfect strangers whom you meet for a moment but who will remain with you forever."

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Tari (new)

Tari Costan I so enjoyed reading your article .....

"Azar Nafisi's Favorite Books About Why We Read"

Please keep writing about favorite books.


message 2: by Alaa (new)

Alaa Abu sneneh Thanks for this article I enjoy reading its simply meaningful .

message 3: by Janet (new)

Janet I enjoyed this feature immensely, and hearing about classics, like "Huckleberry Finn" --whose message will live forever.


message 4: by Andi (new)

Andi Lo Thank you for the article :) Adding these books to my reading list

message 5: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Younkin great list, thanks!

message 6: by Bob (new)

Bob Bradley Thank you

message 7: by Bob (new)

Bob Bradley Can anyone be a perfect stranger, given, the passions and dispassions of each are of all?

message 8: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Woodward A wonderful list. It reminds me, again, of why reading and writing are so very necessary for our hearts and souls. Thank you.

message 9: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Feigert Charlotte's Web: 0ne of the most wonderful books ever written. Every spring when I read it to my classroom I fell in love with it all over again.

message 10: by Lillian (new)

Lillian Philbin Love these reviews and recommendations.

message 11: by Jane (new)

Jane Marie What I need to know: who is good reads? I want to avoid Amazon being the only place to go.

message 12: by Donna (new)

Donna Simmons Just go to and find out. You'll be amazed!

message 13: by Robin (new)

Robin Broide Thank you for your rich insights.Your recommendations are now shouting at me for my attention.

message 14: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Brittain I will be reading some of yourcfavoritevbooks...and have a feeling they will becomev some of my favorites too.

message 15: by Theresa (new)

Theresa Breiner Charlotte's web, one of my all time favorite reads I. A lifetime and I am 53 yrs old!

message 16: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Thanks! Plan to read your favorites.

message 17: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Bulos I found her comments fascinating and appealing. It makes me want to read her list all at once. Thanks for the irresistible invite.Please do more of this.

message 18: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Bulos I feel like reading all the books that you have made your comments on. I find them enlightening. Many thanks.Inspite of Kindle, I still prefer holding a book when I read.I like seeing them in the shelves. Looks like most of them are worth keeping.

message 19: by Nita (new)

Nita Thanks Azar. I am writing this essay called How a Good Book becomes an endless source of inspiration.
may I quote you?
Would you like to say anything more?
Nita Kapadia

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