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I met the absolute sweetest couple not long ago at a used bookstore in Lexington. A book by William Least Heat-Moon that I coveted had disappeared from the shelves, and I checked with a bookseller to confirm what I already knew. So we had to beg this couple’s pardon as we looked, just to make sure. Later I rested on one of the few chairs in the store (more like a quick assemble chaise?), and the gentleman walked up to me.

“So it’s you again.”

I laughed. “So sorry about that.”

He offered his hand and I stood to greet him. He and his wife are profs at Morehead State University, he said, and were looking for books to welcome an international student. I mumbled something about Iranian expat lit. Just making conversation. Book release cocktail party drivel.


“Yep. Expatriate. Like Reading Lolita in Tehran.”

He sat down next to me. He didn’t know of the book (and honestly, I only know it from reviews), but he knew many other things, things I care about. We talked about the sciences versus the humanities, about books we loved, about journalism. Turns out we had that in common. I said something vague about working in broadcast journalism as a kidlet, and left it at that. His wife, Joy, walked up. She was equally engaging, and equally charming. You could tell they were every undergrad’s dream: kind, interested, erudite, compassionate, learned. Good folks. Darn good folks.

I would have given them a card, in a heartbeat. And I would have been honored to do so. But I don’t have a reason to carry cards anymore.

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Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely–their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.

Azar Nafisi’s luminous masterwork gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny, and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.