‘Republic of Imagination’ makes a case for literature in U.S. schools

What does Huck Finn have to do with the Iranian revolution?

Azar Nafisi makes a strong case for the answer “everything” and also with democracy in America.

In her earlier book, “Reading Lolita in Iran,” Nafisi found that literature became a way for otherwise repressed individuals to regain their humanity in Tehran’s tumult.

With her latest, “The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books,” she asks what place literature has in the changing landscape of the United States. What do books mean to people who can read without fear?

In education, some argue that reading fiction has become a luxury that we no longer can afford. They say American children are lagging behind in math, science and technology, from which stems the highly debated Common Core for state school curriculums.

From the standpoint of an educator — first teaching in Tehran and then in the United States — Nafisi worries over this latest focus on test-taking.

The Founding Fathers saw “democracy as inextricably linked to education,” she says, but it goes against democratic ideals to be trained to fill in bubbles rather than to think critically and to form one’s own questions.

Common Core aims to have students by their senior year using materials that are 70 percent nonfiction, often newspaper and magazine articles, and 30 percent fiction. The nonfiction would not be chosen for the quality of its prose or articulation of ideas. Rather, it should allow students to glean facts and answer questions.

To substitute dry nonfiction texts — one example Nafisi found dealt with insulation — for fiction can rob students of the chance to not only think critically, but also to enjoy literature, she says. While nonfiction might seem more closely linked to the real world, Nafisi argues instead that fiction can cut like a scalpel to the truth behind the headlines.

She sees “a collusion, not a collision, between fiction and reality, and that collusion functioned as an antidote to the lies, illusions and fantasies.… To me, this was the best argument for those who consider fiction irrelevant.”

Enter Huck Finn, who learns enough of the black experience from his friend Jim to say — shockingly for Mark Twain’s Jim Crow- and religion-infused America — he’ll just go to hell rather than betray the runaway as the law required.

With his smidgin of formal education, Huck embodies what Nafisi sees as the American ideal, that is, “heroes are wary of being overcivilized, that they carve out their own path and look to their heart for what is right and just.”

“This is the kind of individualism that shapes my idea of America,” she says, “the one I tried to share with my students in Tehran, explaining to them that moral choice comes from a sound heart and a constant questioning of the world and of oneself, and that is just as difficult, if not more so, in a society that appears to give you every freedom.”

Mark Twain would have approved of that view of America.

The other books to which Nafisi refers are Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt” and Carson McCullers’ “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”

These pieces of fiction illuminate our history, and our future, in a way that articles that brim with facts cannot. Articles may get at truth in their own way, but they cannot get to the upper-case “Truth” that fiction can.

Leanna Bales is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, by Azar Nafisi (338 pages; Viking; $28.95)