In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, the Iranian author and professor Azar Nafisi recalls how, when living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, she secretly brought together seven female students in her living room every Thursday morning so they could read and discuss forbidden classic works of Western literature. These books were considered ‘anti-revolutionary’ and ‘morally harmful’ by the Iranian authorities. Nafisi and the girls put themselves at risk so they could enter the worlds created by writers that included Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.
Nafisi’s passion for literature and her defiance of the authorities is inspiring, as is the determination of the girls who attended her class, but Reading Lolita in Tehran is an upsetting read. Books – ideas – are powerful, of course, and deal with difficult and sometimes questionable ideas, but they are not so powerful that we should be prevented from studying them, and it makes me angry to think that those wonderful, if tragic and complicated, worlds of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, are not available to everyone in many parts of the world. All because those books are considered immoral, and because women, especially, are deemed too susceptible to negative influences.
But at least we in the West are enlightened. We wouldn’t separate students from works of literature, or see books as endorsing the worlds they help us imagine. We know the difference between words and actions, right? Apparently not, as evidenced by the growing trend for trigger warnings: warnings which are placed on books and reading lists to alert university students to the potentially distressing topics, such as rape or war, which may come up in their courses.
What’s remarkable about this development is who is calling for these alerts. It’s not religious extremists, or fusty old male professors worried about the weak minds of female students; it is coming from the students themselves. This is unusual. When I was a teenager, one boyfriend and I raided our parents’ bookshelves for so-called inappropriate books – as you might expect, these ‘inappropriate’ books were most often about sex – and I am convinced that our behaviour was perfectly normal. Tell someone they cannot or should not read something and they will usually want to read it. That students are telling their teachers they should be protected from certain books and ideas is alarming.
Triggers warnings all began, as documented by Jennie Jarvie, in the blogosphere, springing from feminist discussions about the problems of sexual assault and how best to warn people about difficult content. Trigger warnings spread quickly through internet forums and are now used in major universities. The New York Times reports that students at universities including the University of Michigan, George Washington University, the University of California in Santa Barbara and the Oberlin College at Rutgers University have requested trigger warnings be placed on certain materials.