Book Notes: Read Dangerously by Azar Nafisi

Read Dangerously book cover

By Dee Richards

Of the 2023 shortlisted selections for The Christian Gauss Award, Azar Nafisi’s title most promises a no-holds-barred perspective on classic and contemporary literature. Nafisi, previously known for her literary-focused memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), now brings Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times, released by Dey Street Books, a subsidiary of Harper Collins Publishing. In this text, Nafisi explores her own identities as a woman and professor of literature in both her home country of Iran and as an immigrant coming to find her home in America. She uses these identities to inform this work which is part memoir, part literary criticism.

Read Dangerously is a thought-provoking journey into some of the most remarkable and inflammatory writing of our time, the likes of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and more. Nafisi challenges political polarization in a comparison between the two places she calls home, Iran and America, and emphasizes the role of human-focused literature as an instrument for change in both places. Using epistolary writing to create a natural intimacy with the reader by way of one-sided letters to Nafisi’s deceased father, she interfaces with topics of oppression, literary suppression, and reading as an act of resistance. The subject matter and infusion of hybrid writing practice have garnered high praise, including attention from Phi Beta Kappa’s prestigious Christian Gauss Award.

The ΦBK Book Awards Selection Panelists shortlisted Read Dangerously for the Gauss award for its “beautiful and thoughtful invitation to (re)visit how we understand what reading and literature mean in the world” and for its strong central premise, “that literature is a vital form of resistance.”

Nafisi is no stranger to critical acclaim, with Reading Lolita in Tehran winning multiple awards and remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for a stunning 117 weeks. Read Dangerously has been celebrated for its strength and intelligence: USAToday says that the book is filled with “eloquent essays on literature’s power to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” The Washington Post praises her ability to “frequently and deftly shift lanes between autobiography and literary analysis.” And The Los Angeles Review of Books says that the work is a “perceptive illustration of how we rethink our lives . . . behind the fault lines that kept us imprisoned,” ultimately concluding that Read Dangerously “gives all of us hope.” The scope of criticism, coupled with the personality of memoir, makes clear why Nafisi’s work stands out.

The Christian Gauss Award celebrates remarkable works of literature in the field of literary scholarship and criticism. Azar Nafisi joins her fellow 2023 Christian Gauss Award finalists Dennis Tyler, Jane F. Thrailkill, Lisa Zunshine, and Ilan Stavans in having an exceptional impact on scholars of the liberal arts and sciences. For more information on Read Dangerously, please visit Their site offers a free sample of the complete introduction and a four-minute sample of the audiobook, in the author’s own words.

Looking for your next great read? Visit the ΦBK Book Awards online for more about the Christian Gauss Award and Phi Beta Kappa’s other book prizes. The next ΦBK Book Awards Shortlist will be announced fall 2024.

Dee Richards is a cum laude graduate of University of California, Irvine holding a B.A. in English, with a creative writing focus. Richards received the honor of induction by UC Irvine’s Mu of California chapter in June 2023, a distinction only offered to the top five percent of graduating seniors there. Richards has won three awards in creative non-fiction and has received eight anthology publications to date.