It was love at first paragraph.
“In Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, a young man named Hans Castorp arrives at a Swiss sanatorium to visit his tubercular cousin for three weeks. Although Castorp himself does not have tuberculosis, he somehow ends up staying in that sanatorium for seven years. The plot of The Magic Mountain mirrors the history of its composition: Mann set out to write a short story, but ended up producing a 1,200-page novel. Despite the novel’s complexity, its central question is very simple: How does someone who doesn’t actually have tuberculosis end up spending seven years at a tuberculosis sanatorium? I often ask myself a similar question: How does someone with no real academic aspirations end up spending seven years in suburban California studying the form of the Russian novel?”
So, begins Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.
It’s a magical book, a testament of love to reading, to writing, to dreaming. At its heart are essays Batuman has written including her tale for Harper’s about Tolstoy and her first, glorious essay for n + 1, which brought together Isaac Babel and King Kong.
Subtitled, Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Them, Batuman’s book is part travelogue, part dissertation about a million parts just wonderful celebration of reading and knowledge.
It’s “ostensibly about her favorite Russians but is actually about a million other things: grad school, literary theory, translation, biography, love affairs, the making of “King Kong,” working for the Let’s Go travel guidebook series, songs by the Smiths, even how to choose a nice watermelon in Uzbekistan,” Dwight Garner wrote in The New York Times where he called the book “funny and melancholy… Crucially and fundamentally, it is also an examination of this question: How do we bring our lives closer to our favorite books?”
As for the funny…
“Every morning I called Aeroflot to ask about my suitcase,” she writes. “‘Oh, it’s you,’ sighed the clerk. ‘Yes, I have our request right here…. When we find the suitcase we will send it to you. In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?'”
Writing in Slate, under the headline — A Comedian in the Academy, Who knew studying Russian literature could be so funny? — Adam Kirsch calls the book a “smartly comic new memoir.”
I read the book very fast the first time, swept up in Batuman’s romance with words and belief in their power.
“While it is true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for?”
And then I read the book again, slowly, patiently, a few pages here, a few paragraphs there, wanting to savor, enjoy, learn.
“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”
Most importantly, though. I think everyone should read. Whenever you can, wherever you can.
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- Book Review | ‘The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,’ by Elif Batuman (nytimes.com)
- Adventures in Russian Literature (online.wsj.com)
- Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. (slate.com)