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Two MHC Buildings Garner LEED Award for Green Design

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Weissman Center Offers Fall Series on 2004 Presidential Election

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First-Year Students at Mount Holyoke Form Global Book Circle

MHC Welcomes New Archivist Jennifer King

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Mount Holyoke Historian Is Named ACLS Fellow

Summer Science Symposium Highlights Student Research

Alumnae Association Essay Contest Asks, “What Changed Your Life?”

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September 10, 2004

First-Year Students at Mount Holyoke Form Global Book Circle

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women—to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction.”

From the beginning of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, it’s clear that the book circle at the center of this story takes place not in the safety of an American college town, but in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where reading classic Western literature is considered a challenge to the system. In Nafisi’s living room these women dared to explore the works of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov.

This summer, members of Mount Holyoke’s incoming class of 2008 are reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, forming a global reading circle that encompasses six continents. Since 2000, Mount Holyoke’s new students have taken part in a common reading as part of the College’s orientation program, receiving copies of the selected book during the summer and participating in discussions after their arrival on campus. The reading helps new students make the transition into the College community by giving them a way to make connections with other students and to the intellectual life of the campus. Faculty members are being encouraged to incorporate the book into their courses, and a faculty panel will lead a discussion on the book on Thursday, September 9, at 7 pm in Gamble Auditorium.

“Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live in a country where reading certain books is a crime, where even showing your own hair in public is a crime?” President Joanne V. Creighton asked in a letter to students that accompanied copies of the book. “This memoir tells the story of a group of courageous young women who carved out a pocket of privacy and freedom to pursue their own education. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the texts they discuss. The point of Nafisi’s work is that these women dare to read what they want to. You might find yourself thinking about the relation between education and liberty, and the ways in which books can help set our minds free under whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.”

“There was strong interest in the book from a lot of people on campus,” said Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English and former codirector of the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, in explaining the choice. “The Weissman Center had identified Nafisi as someone who could inspire our students and faculty concerning the liberating possibilities of reading. We tend to take the freedom to read for granted; that would be a mistake in Iran, where Nafisi’s women-only reading group is a courageous act of political resistance. The Arts Group at Mount Holyoke, led by Jim Coleman, was also eager to engage Nafisi’s work. I think we’re all groping for ways to think about art as encompassing freedom and resistance, and Nafisi embodies and expresses those ideals.”

Previous common readings have been The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (2003); Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (2002); How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez (2001); and Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams (2000).

 

 

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