In modern Iranian culture, reading is not generally regarded as a leisure activity, although daily newspapers have a wide circulation and there are a number of “family” magazines, similar to women’s magazines in the West, which contain advice on family relationships, children’s upbringing and education, cooking, general interest, some celebrity news, and astrological predictions. There are numerous specialty magazines geared for specific markets, including soccer and sports fans, jokes and cartoons, crosswords, and sudokus. On the more serious end of the spectrum, there are business, political, architecture and interior design, and literary and philosophy journals. Foreign magazines such as National Geographic and Time can be found at international hotels and some central spots, such as in Enghelab Street around the main building of Tehran University.
This, by the way, is the place to locate any book, from study aids to foreign language materials, and art and photographic books, as well as educational CDs. Almost every Iranian publisher has a central outlet, and some foreign publishers have representatives here. However, book reading for enjoyment is by no means widespread among Iranians in the way it is elsewhere. Very few Iranians read at home for pure enjoyment. I believe there are two main reasons for this. The first is that reading is intrinsically a solitary pastime and is incompatible with the warm gregariousness of Iranians, who prefer companionship over any solitary activity. Secondly, as a result of the educational system, many Iranians have generally come to regard reading only as a means of rote learning, at least for literature and the humanities (history, geography, religious education), and they have not learned to derive pleasure from it.
Students have to learn the meanings of difficult words in poems and to identify literary features (e.g. metaphors, similes) without being asked to analyze their function/effect on the text or to offer a personal response. In history, geography, and RE, they have to learn the lessons by heart and reproduce them, without exercising any critical thinking. When an Iranian relative of ours traveled on the London Underground for the first time, he was surprised by the number of people reading, especially because the subway car was quite crowded. As mentioned earlier, the English value privacy, independence, and freedom from imposition, and any genuine interest in reading aside, the English often use reading in public as a kind of shield protecting them from outside disturbances and helping them avoid making unwitting eye contact with strangers.
In Iran, habits are very different. More people travel in pairs or in small groups, and even if they are traveling alone, they don’t hesitate to look at other passengers, and often start a conversation with the person sitting next to them. If you decide to read on public transportation, be prepared to attract the stares of other passengers. An Iranian friend explained that reading in public gives the impression that there is something important in the reading material and makes bystanders curious. Certain groups of people read for pleasure or as part of their jobs: academics, lawyers, clerics, writers, and people who have grown up in a family where reading and literature were important. But such people are in the minority, although most households own at least one copy of the Holy Quran, a prayer book, and a copy of the Divân (collection of lyrics) by Hafez. The Quran and the Mafatih are often read for devotional purposes by many people.