... not unlike that of the engaged women of Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” who found relief from their authoritarian society in the imaginative world of novels.In the New York Times she describes the impoverished reading culture of the country. For a start, there were few bookshops per se, most doubling as stationary or toy stores. And what sells?:
Self-help books and their eclectic offshoots, on topics like Indian spirituality and feng shui, enjoy the most prominent position on bookstore front tables. The emergence of the genre, which did not exist before the 1979 Islamic revolution, may suggest a culture trying to cope with the erosion of traditional gender roles, or with rising rates of divorce and premarital sex. But Iranian intellectuals are quick to blame “cultural repression and spiritual crisis,” as one prominent magazine editor said to me, or as a friend who owns a bookstore put it, Iranians who have “lost their minds.” The success of translated titles like “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” has given rise to some homegrown authors’ specializing in more culturally specific advice. ... When Iranians aren’t reading about depression or the harmonious arrangement of furniture, they’re drawn to soap-opera-ish novels about family life and chaste, unrequited love, bearing titles like “The Solitude of Lonely Nights.” After the revolution, which created a caste of literate women with no more social clubs or cultural centers to frequent, the market for women’s popular fiction swelled. Demand is highest for Persian translations of Danielle Steel (with intimate scenes either blotted out or obliterated by euphemism) and her Iranian equivalents, Fahimeh Rahimi and M. Moaddabpour, neither of whom has ever been seen on television (used in Iran mainly to promote state ideology, soap and rice). The most popular novel of the last two decades, Fattaneh Haj Seyyed Javadi’s “Listless Morning,” about an idle aristocratic family under the 19th-century Qajar monarchy, has sold an unheard-of 185,000 copies since 1998 and spawned dozens of imitations.
When I arrived seven years ago, writers and publishers were making the same predictions about the impending death of reading heard perennially in the United States. In a nation of 70 million with a nearly 80 percent literacy rate and a centuries-old literary tradition, they argued, book sales — 40,000 copies for a typical commercial best seller and 2,000 to 5,000 for novels and literary nonfiction — were dismal. According to Mohammad-Reza Neymatpour of the Nashr-e Nay publishing house, sales have been declining steadily since 1979. Though books are inexpensive by any standard — generally costing no more than the price of a couple of sandwiches — little in public life encourages reading. There are few public libraries, no reading contests in schools and scarce promotion of any book apart from the book. (Billboards inform Iranians that if they can memorize the Koran in its entirety, they will be awarded a formal university degree.) Even the government is growing concerned. In advance of the Tehran Book Fair, held earlier this month, the state newspaper, Iran, published a scolding article under the headline “Let Us Learn How to Read.”
And get this:
In April, an announcer on state radio lamented that the average Iranian spends only 16 seconds a day reading.