Love at First Sight Part Two: The Woman Who Read Too Much by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

OMG!—It is finally beginning to act like summertime around here and as you may well imagine, part of me is hardly interested in blogging. Still, there are some writing assignments I gave myself…..

Remember two months ago when I posted about falling in love with the title of the book, The Woman Who Read Too Much? I promised to read it and write about it so you could have my before-and-after snapshots of what the book is about?

Oh…..No longer interested, huh? Oh well. The Woman Who Read Too Much

The Woman Who Read Too Much is a novel inspired by the life of Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn—a hugely mysterious figure about whom even less would be known were it not for the “foreign diplomats, travellers, and scholars” who spread her infamy into the West during the 19th century. It is known that she was born into and educated by a family of mullahs who apparently took things too far. She pursued independent thought and sharp reasonings which emboldened her to challenge the religious orthodoxy of the day as well as to forget her place as a woman. Her unforgivable “crimes” included assuming theological leadership and removing her veil in public. She rejected sharia law.

The story of “the woman who read too much”—or, the poetess of Qazvin as she is usually called throughout—is told in four sections: The Book of the Mother (of the Shah), The Book of the Wife (of the Mayor), The Book of the Sister (of the Shah) and The Book of the Daughter (of the Poetess). It is from these various angles that the reader gets a sense of the constructs of power amongst the men and women of the political and royal classes of Persia during the last 50 years of the 1800s.

Unlike women of a certain class in the western world—for whom the practice of literacy often included writing autobiographical documents as well as letters, poetry, and novels that served as testimony to the attitudes and lifestyles of their time—it was not until the 20th century that Iranian women began to write their stories. Prior to that, Persian women’s lives—their names, their roles, their gifts and talents were not traceable, not detectable; not a part of the “official” history of their country.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. The writing is compelling and I never felt as if I didn’t want to know what was going to happen next. There is a lot of treachery and violence and no characters or counter-stories to relieve or rub against those acts and themes. I grew frustrated with not feeling able to access anyone at a soul level: everyone is only identified by their success or failure to fulfill their societal role. The poetess of Qazvin never emerges as a full woman. I tired of reading how she may have been here or there doing this or that but that no one could be sure. The author’s narrative writes both forward and backward at the same time, and while I admire her strategy in theory, I found myself losing threads.

What I enjoyed most about the book are the many radical attributes assigned to literacy sprinkled throughout. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s labor of love shines light around the subject of a figure like Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn to show that “ The world changed when definitions of womankind were altered.” Toward the book’s end,the gift of the poetess of Qazvin—”the woman who read too much”— is summed-up this way:

“To read is to pray, she used to tell us: to write is to trust. Illiteracy is fear. She wanted us to be fearless, to see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears and read the books of creation and revelation for ourselves. She taught us to take risks.”

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I had the chance to visit the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. where I saw an exhibition of work by a contemporary Iranian-born visual artist, Shirin Neshat, titled “Facing History.” Much of Neshat’s work capture’s contemporary Iranian issues. However, her images of women wearing calligraphy reminded me of The Woman Who Read Too Much.

Artist Shirin Neshat's "Identified"
Artist Shirin Neshat’s “Identified”

Access this 3:13 minute YouTube video of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani reading from her book.

5 Comments

  1. Dear Leslie, Thank you for this honest review. I love the line that “I wanted to like this book more than I did.” You’ve explained its (deserved) failings well, yet put them in their inescapable context. If you own a copy, at least the title will be around as a cautionary tale, eh?

    1. Hi Margaret – Yes, I am not at all sorry to have read this book. There are many reasons to recommend it—the writing is admirable, for one thing—but we all have our tastes and temperaments. Do you own or recall reading any books about which you’ve had similar feelings?

      1. Yes, Leslie, I do own several. The most recent is called “Moriarty,” and I got so mad at being fooled by the ending that I can’t recall the writer’s name. The story happens after the incident in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” and it is an admirably done puzzle. All I will say beyond that, so that I don’t spoil things, is that the narrator is unreliable. It was the most shocking ending for me since Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” another unreliable narrator story. I’ll admit that they’re both well written, but grrrr!

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