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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books | [Azar Nafisi]

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families; others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail.
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Publisher's Summary

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families; others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with those they were reading, Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller, and Lolita, their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran.

Nafisi's account flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members and purged the curriculum. When a radical Islamist in Nafisi's class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which he saw as an immoral work that preached falsehoods of "the Great Satan", she decided to let him put Gatsby on trial and stood as the sole witness for the defense.

Azar Nafisi's luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women's lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, written with a startlingly original voice.

©2003 Azar Nafisi; (P)2004 Recorded Books, LLC

What the Critics Say

"This book transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism, or social history, though it is superb as all three." (Publishers Weekly)
"Nafisi's determination and devotion to literature shine through, and her book is an absorbing look at primarily Western classics through the eyes of women and men living in a very different culture." (Booklist)
"Remarkable...an eloquent brief on the transformative power of fiction." (The New York Times)
"A spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression." (Kirkus Reviews)

What Members Say

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3.7 (133 )
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  •  
    Jayne Louisville, KY, United States 07-17-04
    Jayne Louisville, KY, United States 07-17-04
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A wonderful story"

    I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book. It not only opened a window into another culture, but also provided the the reader with the author's insights on various classic pieces of literature. The narrator has a gentle accent which enhances the listening experience, and the author tells her story with pathos and passion.

    20 of 20 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Diane New Egypt, NJ, USA 09-03-04
    Diane New Egypt, NJ, USA 09-03-04
    HELPFUL VOTES
    41
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    8
    6
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    "A peek under the Veil"

    I will freely admit to not having read most of the classics that form the backbone of this narrative, but I have been inspired to turn to a few of them. I believe, though, that my experience of Jane Austin will be forever linked with Dr. Nafisi and her "girls".

    The storyline does jump a bit, and I did find my mind wandering a bit during some of the discussions of some of the books, but the characters are wonderfully rich and full. I'd love to host a future class in my living room. I came to truly care about them all, and would like to know how their lives have changed in the intervening years.

    The narrator's voice, with her soft accent, helped to shape Dr. Nafisi in my mind. The emotion that she carried in her inflection and tone gave the illusion of a storyteller recounting her own story. An excellent choice of readers, in my humble opinion.

    I learned quite a bit from this story. A bit about Western literature, of course, but even more about the human spirit. I understand a bit more about the origins of the conflicts between the Islamic world and the Western world, and realize - once again - that underneath it all, we share the same human experience. I am thankful for my personal freedoms, my hopes, my dreams - and thank Dr. Nafisi for opening my eyes to my wealth.

    15 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gene Agoura Hills, CA, USA 12-30-04
    Gene Agoura Hills, CA, USA 12-30-04
    HELPFUL VOTES
    637
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    97
    41
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    "A Moving Combination of Litcrit and Memoir"

    You can read this with enjoyment even if your knowlege of literature is nil, but it may spur you to become better read. The title focuses on Lolita almost at random; it might more properly have been titled Reading Jane Austen in Tehran, though Huckleberry Finn and Henry James also receive significant spotlights. But the star is Khomeni-era Iran, with the US hostage crisis and the suppression of women as the most prominent background events. While reviewing masterpieces of literature (a worthy workout even for knowlegeable readers), this book gives the reader a personal connection with life in Iran after the fall of the Shah. A good companion piece would be the wonderful All the Shah's Men, also available on Audible.

    8 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    connie Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada 03-13-09
    connie Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada 03-13-09 Member Since 2007

    trying to see the world with my ears

    HELPFUL VOTES
    3351
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    1461
    395
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    1481
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    Overall
    "unique but uneven"

    Overall, I loved this mosaic of memories of Iranian life before, during and after the revolution that deposed the monarchy. The book is unevenly writen, however--bits of journals, class notes (literally), encounters with morality militia, and classroom observation strung together with literary reflection of varying quality. In places there are details of remembered weather, conversations, or manner of dress that don't seem--at least in the detail given--of import to the narrative. Sometimes the author seems to try too hard to be "literary" and in other places she lapses into word by word replay of a conversation when a summary sentence would have served as well.

    The best two aspects of the book are its ability to take the listener "behind the veil" in Islamist Iran, and its reflection/discussion on the novels studied by the author and her Iranian students.

    Overall it's a wonderful portrait of Iran during the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and during the 8 year war with Iraq, but don't expect a linear narrative. I think this book is more interesting if you've read the novels that wind their way through the narrative (particularly Lolita, Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, Pride and Prejudice, and Madam Bovary), but having read them is not necessary. Although the discussion contains some "spoilers," you might be motivated to read novels that you've skipped.

    Throughout the listen I vacillated about whether or not I liked the narration style: At times I thought it affected and stilted; other times I thought it suited the tone of the prose.

    This is a unique, though not easy, listen -- "not easy listening" because of the memoir's style rather than graphic violence or challenging ideas. However, if you listen to many books, a change of style can be refreshing. By the end I felt acqauinted with author, and that's probably the best outcome for a memoir.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amazon Customer Seattle, WA 06-10-06
    Amazon Customer Seattle, WA 06-10-06 Listener Since 2005
    HELPFUL VOTES
    2
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    "Just goes to show. . ."

    Unlike other reviewers, I loved the literary references, the lyrical quality of the narrator's voice (the r's are particularly exotic and lulling), and the meandering chapters written in a poet's language. But what I appreciated most, at a time when understanding Middle Eastern cultures is so important, is how it brought the Islamic revolution in Iran to life and helped me understand the cultural and political underpinnings.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    K. Haynes Boston, MA 07-27-09
    K. Haynes Boston, MA 07-27-09 Member Since 2001
    HELPFUL VOTES
    8
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    6
    1
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    "Horrid Narrator. Great book."

    I'd been looking forward to listening to this book. REALLY looking forward to it. In fact, basking in the listening to this book was to be my reward for completing a years' worth of, what I thought would be, less pleasant reading. Boy, was I wrong.

    I gave the reader 3 hours to pull it together and start speaking like the main character of this book, but it didn't happen. The reader is absolutely insufferable. She trills her R's, leaves pregnant-pauses where none are required, and lends an air of bloated, self-importance to the simplest of tasks such as: drinking tea, answering the doorbell, 'selecting' the students for her class. She speaks with a "Look-how-silly" tone when describing her students' various tolerances for discarding their cultural garb, their approaches to novels, their tendency to speak in class. All the while, she gives the impression that all of these women are her science-fair projects, that she can just comment upon them without care.

    So, after giving up on the Audible Book, I read the book. It's compelling and worth reading. So get the book out of your local library. If you must hear the book because you are unable to read it with your eyes, listen to the Audible sample before you make the leap. Your Audible credits are precious; don't squander them.

    8 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Roy Beaumont, TX, United States 04-21-09
    Roy Beaumont, TX, United States 04-21-09 Member Since 2005
    HELPFUL VOTES
    1691
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    273
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    Overall
    "Reading and Repression"

    Azar Nafisi resigned her position as Professor at the University of Tehran. She could no longer teach in the repressive environment evident in the country and the university. This is the story of the aftermath of that decision and the "reading club" she formed. She organized seven of her best female students and secretly met with them to read banned books. As the memoir unfolds, the listener reads about her act of courage, the benefits to the students, a little about literary criticism, Islamic rule, and the volumes they considered. There is something for every listener here. I particularly enjoyed learning how she taught and about her working with the students though tangential to Nafisi's intent for the book I assume.

    The book is written so well it is a joy and read so well it is a pleasure.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Stephanie H. Dunn 01-23-09 Member Since 2008
    HELPFUL VOTES
    5
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    "Ruined by the narrator"

    Let me say up front that this single star is not aimed at the author of the book. It's possible I would like this book, but I may never find out. I find the affectation of the narrator so distracting and annoying that I can't concentrate on what's being said. I think it's an attempt to sound Iranian, but the result is stilted and robs the words of any honest feeling. The delivery also seems at odds with the content. These women are finding little spaces where their minds can be free despite the confines of their rigid society. The emphasis on proper enunciation and fake rrrolling of Rs just about drowns out that message.
    I've heard the author speak on the radio and she was very engaging. A relaxed and straight forward narration would have been much more effective.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Deb V Amherst, MA United States 07-03-05
    Deb V Amherst, MA United States 07-03-05 Member Since 2001

    davan7

    HELPFUL VOTES
    16
    ratings
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    257
    4
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    Overall
    "an extraordinary book"

    Not only is the author's memoir of her life and that of her students in Iran fascinating, but their studies and discussions have inspired me (and at least 2 friends who also read Nafisi's book) to read or reread many of the works they discussed, and see so much we couldn't understand as high school or undergraduate students. I feel as though I too have become one of Professor Nafisi's students, and am thoroughly enjoying the experience.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    A Kotzebue, AK, United States 06-19-09
    A Kotzebue, AK, United States 06-19-09 Member Since 2007
    HELPFUL VOTES
    69
    ratings
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    91
    8
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    2
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    Overall
    "thoughtful and intriguing"

    This book is very helpful for understanding current events in Iran. The start was slow but the action did pick up. The tone is reflective and dignified. The author quietly and deeply explores the inner and intellectual lives of her women characters over a span of years. As a result we recieve the gift of understanding what it has been like to be an intelligent woman in Iran from the revolution to present. The narration is a good fit and its an intriguing listen. I'm glad that I read this book because I feel that I learned something important. Also, the idea of telling peoples' stories through the lens of great literature is really novel and interesting. I actually gained a new and deeper understandings of literature that I'd read in high school or college.

    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
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