What does this dangerous time of disease and destruction demand of us as readers and writers?
Three new books highlight the power of the written word to foster creative responses to limitations and oppression — and inspire profound change within us.
Dangerous Reading: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times by Azar Nafisi, On the Edge: The Joy of Reading and Writing by Elena Ferrante, and For Your Life by Ana Kundren Write explores political, social, and personal crises.
Nafisi, best known for “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” warns readers that the United States may be heading down the wrong path toward authoritarian governments like the Islamic regime in her native Iran. Her books demonstrate the power of great literature to resist the authoritarian impulses of contemporary American politics. She advises us on dangerous reading—authors whose work challenges comforting clichés and seeks to change the world. Readers will find insightful analysis by Salman Rushdie, Zora Neale Hurston, David Grossman, Elias Khoury, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others—whose writing is an act of surviving trauma.
Read Dangerously is a book full of passion. Nafisi described the explanations as a series of letters to her late father, who was imprisoned by the Islamic regime for four years for disobedience. She engages readers with strong expressions and direct references to her father, mining personal memories of oppression to explore big questions: How should we act in this world? How should we treat our enemies?
Nafisi summarizes these issues through her analysis of Grossman’s writings on the dehumanizing effects of war. “The story speaks to the enemy, forcing us to confront them like humans and look them in the eyes,” she wrote. “Through this process, we restore our own humanity.” She emphasizes the value of literature to teach us not only how to change the world — but ourselves — with a sense of urgency about the role of reading in today’s disconnected and dysfunctional world.
As Nafisi celebrates reading as a way to fight political tyranny, Ferrante, the elusive and anonymous Italian writer of Neapolitan fiction, chronicles her struggles as a woman writer rooted in male literary traditions. In The Margins consists of four papers, presented as a lecture in 2021 by an actress and an academic, now translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Ferrante immerses readers in her practice, articulating her approach to work, her literary influence, and her struggle to find free space.
These articles often read like mysterious musings on literary ideas, inspiration, authorship, and existence. However, Ferrante also offers specific reflections on the craft, such as her list of five fundamental findings from reading literature.
The dissertation focuses on dealing with artistic freedom. The cage theme runs throughout. In the introductory essay “Pen and Pain,” Ferrante recalls her childhood fears of confining her writing to the edge of a notebook. The sense of boundaries that enforced insurmountable boundaries still burns in their emotions. “Does it really take a miracle, I say to myself, for a woman who has something to say to break the boundaries that nature has locked her in and reveal herself to the world in her own words?” she wrote. Reading Gaspara Stampa as a young man taught Ferrante to break free from male literary traditions.
These essays best convey Ferrante’s urge to find a literary form that captures the truth about women’s experiences. This urge is their resistance to submission. “I developed a first-person narrator who, stimulated by random collisions between herself and the world, twists the forms she has painstakingly given, and squeezes other unexpected possibilities out of those dents, twists and injuries Sex: all of this, how she did it, the way she made it through an increasingly uncontrolled story might not even be a story, but a tangle where not only the narrator, but the author himself, a pure writer, was entangled,” Ferrante wrote. Whether for her fans or for the general reader, these articles provide insight into her novel writing and practitioners’ perspectives on the craft.
Anna Kundlen’s “Writing for Your Life” contrasts sharply with Ferrante’s prose. Where Ferrante’s authors have always been obliterated, Kundlen emphasizes that writing is an expression of the author’s self. The book exhorts ordinary people to start writing — journals, diaries, and letters — as a defense against the numbness and loneliness caused by recent political events and the COVID-19 pandemic. Her concern is not about creating art, but about documenting everyday life as a testament to traumatic times.
Writing for Your Life is an engaging book, and readers will find doors open. Some argue that general writing is just as important as the professional writing of novelists, scholars, and historians. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Freelance Writer, led by educator Erin Gruwell, a work-progress narrative created to reflect the lives of enslaved people, and other examples support Quindlen’s claim that writing is restorative because it connects us with our deepest selves Connect and connect with others. It also frees us from the shackles that bind us to our oppressors.
“Especially where stories, memories, anecdotes, everyday experiences, women, people of color, immigrants, and all those who don’t have a seat at the table where big decisions are made, are not just told, but they actually are. It’s at the heart of everyday life,” she wrote.
Writing in the spirit of a storyteller, Quindlen is well aware of how formal education can stifle creative self-expression. But some readers might argue that the most complicated thing “Writing for Your Life” has to say is that if we sit down and write, we regain our humanity. Still, the book shines with the author’s belief in the transformative potential of writing.
Nafisi, Ferrante, and Quindles emphasize that reading and writing can get us out of trouble. They show us how the written word can help us turn current adversity into something good. In their hands, reading and writing are elixir that we should celebrate.
Sharmila Mukherjee is an associate professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle.