Literature and Imagination Make Democracy Work


Our What Makes Democracy Work? series has introduced a broad range of ideas about the institutions, ideas, and practices that are central to democracy, including a free press, the rule of law, and engaged citizenship. Our interview with Azar Nafisi, an acclaimed author and teacher, adds a new and perhaps unexpected contribution to the conversation: She argues that literature and imagination are key to making democracy work.

Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, a 2003 memoir about the power of teaching forbidden western literature to young women in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 2014, she published the book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, making a case for the essential role of fiction in American culture and democracy. As these two titles suggest, Nafisi’s work reflects her experiences living and teaching in her native country of Iran, a theocratic state where the government routinely oppressed its citizens, and in the democratic United States, where she later became a citizen.

For Nafisi, reading literature is essential to becoming a good citizen. She writes that books matter because “they open up a window into a more meaningful life… . They enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own.”1 In this lesson, students engage with Nafisi’s ideas about the connection between imagination, literature, and democracy by listening to an 8-minute podcast, then reading and discussing a short excerpt from The Republic of Imagination.


  • 1 : Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books (Penguin, 2014), p. 12



  1. Warm-up with a Prompt

    Share this prompt with students and ask them to respond in their journals: Think of a novel, memoir, or short story you have read—in or outside school—that helped you to see something differently. Describe the characters, setting, or plot and then explain how those details shifted your thinking. What did you see, understand, or believe after reading the work that you didn’t before?

    To get students started, think about offering an example from your own experience. After they write, students can share their thoughts with a partner. Explain that the rest of the lesson will explore how the literature we read can influence the way we think in ways that are meaningful for us not only personally, but also as citizens and members of a democratic society.

  2. Listen to the Podcast

    Introduce who Azar Nafisi is by using the information from the Overview section of this lesson. Play the podcast Azar Nafisi on Literature and Democracy (8-min) and ask students to jot down words and phrases that help them understand why Nafisi values imagination and literature so highly.

    • Discuss the podcast using some of the following questions:
      • What words and phrases did students write down as they listened? What might Azar Nafisi mean by “imagination”? Why does she believe that literature and imagination are important?
      • In the podcast, Nafisi speaks of how literature and imagination allow us to “transcend boundaries.” What does this mean? What kinds of boundaries can literature help us to cross? Has reading a work of literature ever given you the sense that you were crossing a boundary of some kind? (Students might refer to the journal entries they made at the beginning of the lesson.) According to Nafisi, what do “great writers” do in their work? How does she use the work of Jane Austen as an example of “great” writing?
      • What does this kind of writing have to do with democracy? How might great novels shape the thinking of those who read them?
  3. Discuss Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination
    Read The Republic of Imagination (excerpt) together with your students. In this excerpt, Nafisi discusses the role of literature and imagination in repressive states like Iran and in democracies like the United States.
    • Discuss the excerpt using any of the following questions:
      • Why does Nafisi say that imagination, literature, and literacy are so important to people living under repressive regimes? Why might people be willing to risk punishment to read banned books or listen to banned music?
      • Nafisi says that fiction is an “antidote” to conformity in all kinds of societies. What does she mean?
      • What does she mean by an “inner self”? How can literature help readers to develop an “inner self”? What’s the connection between having an “inner self” and being a responsible citizen of one’s country and the world?
      • In both the podcast and the reading, Azar Nafisi argues that literature and imagination are central to democracy. After hearing her words and discussing them with your classmates, how would you summarize her argument? Do you agree? How might reading literature change how we think about and act towards others? How might it influence how one participates in a democracy? Is reading itself an act of participation?

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