The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Posted January 6, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

The Possessed by Elif BatumanTitle: The Possessed (Goodreads)
Author: Elif Batuman
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Pages: 296
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Taken from the articles found in journals like n+1, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman combines them into this memoir. The Possessed may be a collection journal articles, but combined together it forms more of a memoir of Batuman’s academic life. Starting with a conference she was involved with at Stanford University about Isaac Babel in the first article “Babel in California”.

I mention the first article “Babel in California” because I think it represented everything I did not like about this book. On the surface this book sounds right up my alley. The misleading subtitle for this book is “Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” and that is the expectation I had when going into this book. However going by the first article about one conference, I got a very padded book with no real structure. It seems like Elif Batuman has edited her articles in a way to fit into a book, but she turned articles into sixty page chapters that are so drawn out that it is boring.

There is some interesting sections within this book but I feel the major problem is this book has no structure. If this was a collection of essays, I would expect a theme. If this was a memoir, I would expect more focus on her life. The Possessed sits somewhere in the middle, each chapter is very different; about a conference, her travels, her studies or just reading Russian lit. Each chapter does not seem to connect to the previous chapter, which just made it too clunky.

I wanted a book about Russian literature, but The Possessed did not give me that. In fact any literary criticism was never explained properly, so made it hard to understand how she draw her conclusions. I am looking for a good book about Russian literature, like a literary exploration or a journey into these books. If you know of a book like this that you would recommend, please let me know.


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