Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

 I was really looking forward to reading this book, so I started it with some trepidation. There have been books that I have looked forward to and started with excitement, only to be very disappointed when I did not enjoy reading them. I need not have worried with this book. I loved it. From the opening page, when the main character, Selin, is getting her new email account at Harvard in anticipation of her first term, I was hooked. She is unsure why she even needs email or how it works--it’s a new thing. I was chuckling to myself as I remembered being forced to get an email account by my grad school advisor. I hardly used it then, because the only other people I knew who had email were people I saw on a regular basis. I used to laugh when I would overhear people’s conversations in which they told each other that they’d emailed/replied to the other. I used to wonder if it wouldn’t simply be quicker to say what they wanted to say in that moment. Then I moved to Alaska and email became more useful and convenient, even when we had to sit at a desk to send messages. In the book, Selin also finds uses for email, even though it is before the days of portable email access, smartphones, and even mp3 players/ipods and the like. She listens to her Walkman a lot and one character has the newfangled Discman.
   Selin is really into books and language, so takes Russian along with some linguistics classes. In her Russian class, she is often paired with Ivan to do some exercises involving a story about a woman named Nina, her work, and a missing boyfriend. The story is all the more strange because it is written with beginning language students in mind, so the dialogue is sometimes weird. Nonetheless, this strange language learning tool allows them to interact on a fairly regular basis in this artificial way. One night, Selin sends an email to Ivan and they begin a correspondence and a friendship of sorts. This relationship becomes central to Selin’s life in some ways, even though the two really do not spend all that much time together in person throughout the course of the book. Ivan is Hungarian and Selin, though born in New Jersey, has Turkish relatives and knows the language--the similarities between the two languages play a role in the story, as do linguistic theory, cultural difference, and the role of place in our lives. How does/do the language/languages we speak colour our view of the world and who we are? How much can we learn from literature? There is also an interesting thread in the book that made me think about about how communication changes as technology does and what that means. It used to be that when we used reading and writing for communication, it was often in the form of a handwritten letter, which for many people would have been a more thoughtful process than dashing off a note, for instance. Now people tweet and dash off nonsense that often (usually?) does not have much thought associated with it. When Selin and Ivan begin their email correspondence, it is more like writing a letter used to be--there is a great deal of thought behind their emails. They also bring up the question about who we are and what personae we try on when engaging in this kind of communication. At one point, Ivan says, in a face-to-face conversation between himself and Selin, that he loves the person who wrote the emails. She ends up thinking a great deal about this.

Roughly the first half of the book takes the reader through Selin’s academic year. The rest takes place through the following summer, as Selin travels to a few other countries for work, sightseeing with friends, and to visit relatives.

I was both eager and sorry to finish the book. Sorry because I wanted to travel further with Selin on her journey. I could relate to many of the things she was puzzling about and working through. I liked the questions she asked and the ways in which she processed information. I would love to revisit her in a future book and see how she got on. I was also eager to get to the end because I was looking forward to a neat ending. In this I was disappointed. It was the one thing about the book I did not care for--the abrupt ending. On the other hand, it does make sense, given where Selin is in her life. It is a time of transition and exploration for her and given where she is in her life, so much is still in flux. So the ending is appropriate, I just wish the story did not end right there. Maybe there will be a sequel some day!

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